Let the politicians tinker – they’ll never get close to the heart of good teaching and learning, argues Guy Claxton…
Another Secretary of State for Education – another missed opportunity! A lot of flurry about how much time we should spend teaching fractions – and no time at all spent wondering whether being able to add a half and a third is a relevant life skill for the 21st century! Lots of anxiety about whether we are going to beat Finland or Singapore in the international tables – and no mention of those countries’ own dissatisfaction with the narrowness of their children’s technical ability! Much ado about children’s levels of reading ability – no apparent awareness of how the national Literacy Strategy damaged children’s pleasure in reading!
Here is something very obvious and straightforward that seems too complicated for the likes of Mr Gove to understand. Learning in classrooms happens simultaneously at a range of different levels or layers. At the same time as children are learning facts and cultivating skills, so they are also developing attitudes and traits of their ‘learning character’. They are becoming more or less confident in the face of uncertainty; more or less frightened of making mistakes; more or less imaginative and resourceful; more or less keen to look at what they have done and think about how to improve it; better or worse at collaborating with people who are not their friends; and so on.
And it is these lasting attitudes that are the really important residues of education. Dozens of countries around the world – including Singapore - are now aiming their curricula at these deeper layers of learning. And this does not mean that they no longer care about spelling or long division; it means that they care about the way these things are being taught, and the values and habits that are being developed, as well as the brute test scores at the end. You can teach History in a way that gets good results AND develops tolerance, empathy and imagination; or you can teach History in a way that gets good results AND develops a narrow, anxious and instrumental attitude towards learning. That is the important choice –and that is the obvious thing that very clever and powerful people like Mr Gove seem unable to grasp.
In this together
Every teacher is a player at these deeper levels: you can’t not be. You can never just teach Maths (say); you are always teaching “Maths + Collaboration” or “Maths + The Enjoyment of Finding and Correcting Your Own Mistakes for Yourself” – or “Maths + An Anxious Dread of Not Getting the Right Answer”. You can opt out of the awareness that this is what you are doing – but you can’t opt out of doing it. For good or ill, we are all shaping children’s attitudes towards learning, all the time. If the children have to ask you every time they want to use the dictionary, you are missing an opportunity for them to develop their own resourcefulness. If you rescue them the minute they meet difficulty or frustration, you are depriving them of opportunities to strengthen their resilience. If you always tell them exactly what equipment they are going to need to do an experiment, you are training them to become dependent and mindless: you are thinking for them, not creating opportunities for them to learn how to think for themselves.
And the good news is: these subtle shifts are too small-scale for inspectors to monitor or control. The most important aspects of classroom life fly below Mr Gove’s radar. He is busy pushing and pulling the big levers of the curriculum, while we get on with the job that really matters: laying those deeper foundations for a learning life. His tinkerings with the content and the forms of testing may be welcome or they may be irritating – but they are no more than that. We will keep on doing the things we know to be important. And if the results go up at the same time – well, what’s not to like?
The New Primary Curriculum:
Another Irritation – But No More Than That!
For Teach Primary, Issue 7.3, April 2013
Last weekend saw the UK qualifying round of the Mind Lab Olympics last weekend, organised by EedNET Pioneer Mind Lab UK. The winning school was Twickenham Prep School, whose team of four will be traveling to the International Mind Lab Olympics held in Brazil this August. They will be competing for Gold against representatives from Italy, Australia, Brazil, China, Japan, Panama, Ireland, Turkey and Romania. For more information please follow the link - http://www.mindlab-olympics.com/en-US/Tournaments.aspx?cid=17