Rod Grant: Scotland needs to rethink its educational model

Written by Rod Grant on 14 February 2019 in Comment

Learning should be more fun and less about outcomes, writes Rod Grant, headmaster of Clifton Hall School in Edinburgh

Image credit: Bart Everson

I’m very proud of Scotland; I’m proud of its history and its heritage. I’m proud of its innovative past. And when we look at our great inventors I am struck by something which caught me quite by surprise.

Did you know that Alexander Graham Bell was home-educated by his father until high school? That John Logie Baird was taught by his mother until high school? Or, that James Boyd Dunlop taught himself for 10 years at home, and then managed to get into Glasgow Vet School? Glasgow Vet School and yet he invented the pneumatic tyre. That’s diversity of learning and diversity of application of learning. That’s interesting isn’t it? What was he learning for those 10 years at home? What were they all learning?

I wonder whether they had success criteria to consider? I wonder if they thought about the outcome of their learning, or whether they simply built a body of knowledge which then opened up other avenues of thinking. Often, the best learning takes place when children lead us off into tangents and take us ‘off-plan’.

I’m a huge fan of Curriculum for Excellence, I love what it seeks to do. But I do wonder whether it should provide experiences only, because if you provide the outcome for each experience you’ve pre-determined the learning and that’s detrimental to the learning process. It is as if we are only interested in the right answer…

If I showed you Blue Planet for an hour and I said nothing before the start of the programme, we just all sat down and watched it, then we’d all take something different from that programme. We’d all learn something, we’d all be stimulated in different ways and that might then spark our own self-motivation to go and learn more.

If I said in advance of Blue Planet, we’re going to watch this programme and I want you to concentrate on the journey the Sperm Whale makes. And by the way, in a week’s time I’m going to test you so that I can evidence your learning. If I do that, I’ve actually killed the learning process. Maybe that’s what we’re doing.

And here’s the important bit: I think teachers’ focus has switched from providing valuable learning episodes to providing evidence of a child’s understanding. Teachers are much more focused on now making sure they have the evidence of learning rather than concentrating on the learning itself. And it’s a subtle change, but it’s one that is taking place in classrooms up and down the country.

The collection of evidence actually kills learning, as tasks are defined by pre-determined goals. Children should not be told the success criteria.

We don’t do enough in terms of recognising that Curriculum for Excellence was set up to provide personalisation, breadth, choice. So tell me, how many schools in Scotland can our students study music, drama, and art in S4? I don’t think there are very many at all and that is shocking. It would appear that the powers that be have decided that there’s a hierarchy of subjects, that some are more important than others. Well, I’m sorry. I want a Rudolf Nureyev in my school, I want a Pablo Picasso, I want a Sean Connery. I want children to experience life and I want schools to feed their souls so that they follow the journey that’s important to them, not what’s important to some national strategy regarding the future workforce.

So, in the final analysis, the curriculum matters, but not nearly as much as the culture and ethos of learning. Learning is meant to be fun and yet we’ve done everything possible to create a system that few teachers could ever conceive of as ‘fun’. Scotland needs to take a long hard look at itself and stop tinkering with a system which actually requires to be fundamentally ‘re-set’.

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