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Expert opinion from IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society


The multiplication of Massachusetts and the chemistry of Canada

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 13 June 2012

Chris Husbands
It is probably an apocryphal story. George Bernard Shaw was propositioned by Isadora Duncan, who suggested that she and Shaw should have a child together. “Think of it!” said the acclaimed dancer, “With your brains and my body, what a wonder it would be.” Shaw thought for a moment and replied, Yes, but what if it had my body and your brains?”
The story comes to mind in reading the web statement on the government’s proposals for the new primary national curriculum, which tells us that the proposals on algebra are consistent with “the high-performing education jurisdictions of Singapore and Hong Kong”, the focus on times tables draws on the “high-performing jurisdiction of Massachusetts” and the science curriculum is “similar to the approach taken in Alberta and Massachusetts”. 
Unfortunately, despite this whistlestop tour, the draft programmes of study so far developed do not include geography, but the message is clear: different countries have been used as models to benchmark different parts of the curriculum. With so broad an approach to “learning from the best”, surely the results will be exceptional.
In fact, the mechanics of policy borrowing are just as complex as George Bernard Shaw feared the workings of genetics might be. There is attraction in believing that if a practice works somewhere,  it will work anywhere and that the task of curriculum construction is a matter of taking what is done somewhere else and applying it in a different jurisdiction.
If that were the case, education systems would be more alike than they are. In fact, patterns of performance are more difficult to fathom. There are education systems which are higher performing than others:  the Pacific Rim countries score highly on mathematics and science, as does the northern European jurisdiction of Finland. But Singapore (retaining selective schools) is quite different from Finland (wholly comprehensive), and the curriculum is quite different in Korea (high performing and highly centralised) by comparison with Canada (high performing and decentralized). 
Why this should be the case is a matter of fierce debate. Of course, the task of learning mathematics is as culturally invariable as any subject could be, but the context in which it is learnt is not:  the role that mathematics and science play in different cultures varies hugely. The assumptions made about what “teaching” involves vary enormously.   Moreover, the variation in performance between countries, on PISA evidence, is not in the levels of performance of the best performing children but on the distribution of weaker performance: put differently, equity matters a great deal in education system performance.  And this is why it may be more difficult to bolt together the algebra of Singapore, the multiplication of Massachusetts and the science of Alberta.
The lessons of educational improvement are hard ones. As the American scholar – and now chancellor of the Chicago public school system – Charles Payne bemoans in his most recent book “so much reform, so little change”. Ben Levin, the hugely influential Canadian academic – and former secretary for education in rapidly improving Ontario – observes in How to Change 5000 Schools, “teaching and learning practices [are] far ahead of curriculum as a means of improving student outcomes”. No curriculum, really, exists on a piece of paper, but in the day to day challenge of classrooms.

Proposed primary curriculum: what about the pupils?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 12 June 2012

Andrew Pollard
Education Secretary Michael Gove and Schools Minister Nick Gibb have finally begun to show their hand on the National Curriculum Review – at least for primary education. This sector has been well prepared for development by two substantial reports — the Rose Review, commissioned by the previous government, and the Cambridge Primary Review, funded by the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation. And in the past eighteen months a very large number of teachers, parents and other stakeholders have offered advice to the Department for Education.  The report of an Expert Panel, of which I was a member, drew on this background in making its proposals. However, it is far from clear that these sources have influenced the proposals published yesterday.
The voice that has really counted from beginning to the end has been that of an American educator, ED Hirsch. In his early work, Hirsch developed the view that reading comprehension requires both decoding skills and background cultural knowledge. His influential 1987 book, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, appended long lists of facts and tapped a strong current of concern about US education. It was then extended to provide a Core Knowledge Sequence of year-on-year prescriptions for each subject pre-school to Grade 8 (age 13-14).
When I first met Nick Gibb, Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Sequence was open on his desk, heavily stickered with Post-It notes.  Michael Gove’s instructions to Tim Oates, chair of the Expert Panel, were to trawl the curricula of the world’s high performing countries, to collect core knowledge, and put it in the right order. Then, he believed, we’d have a national curriculum to restore our economic fortunes and provide new opportunities for all.
Why Mary James, Dylan Wiliam and I were appointed to the Expert Panel remains something of a mystery, for we were hardly likely to accede to this crude design for curricular reform.  For my own part, I would not deny that subject knowledge is important nor demur from sustained efforts to consider how it should be most appropriately represented in a programme of study. And of course, the idea sounds wonderful – yes, let’s sort out, once and for all, when spelling of particular words will be mastered, and the use of apostrophes, and the subjunctive, and so on. So this approach is likely to be very attractive to the public.
But the approach is fatally flawed without parallel consideration of the needs of learners. Primary teachers consider the overall experiences of each child, and try to provide a broad and balanced curriculum as is required by law. The skill and expertise of the teacher lies in building on each pupil’s existing understanding and capabilities, and in matching tasks to extend attainment. To do these things, they need scope to exercise professional judgement.
However, on the basis of the new National Curriculum proposals, they are to be faced by extremely detailed year-on-year specifications in mathematics, science and most of English. This is to be complemented by punitive inspection arrangements and tough new tests at 11. The new curriculum will preserve statutory breadth, we are told but, whilst teaching of a foreign language is to be added, provision for the arts, humanities and physical education is uncertain at this point. The constraining effects on the primary curriculum as a whole are likely to be profound and the preservation of breadth, balance and quality of experience will test even the most committed of teachers.
In an attempt to head off such constraints and preserve opportunities for teachers to exercise judgement, the Expert Panel recommended the organisation of programmes of study on a two year basis. But it is Hirsch’s very detailed year-on-year model that has prevailed. This was one of the main issues which caused the Expert Panel as a whole to withdraw from the development of programmes of study, leaving only Tim Oates to work with Ministers and the DfE teams. In the interests of transparency, DfE should identify those who have been particularly influential in preparing the draft programmes of study. 
Certainly there are ameliorative provisions – for instance, the “freedoms” of the School Curriculum permit schools to vary the placement of content within each key stage, or to bring forward material to an earlier key stage. The latter may help teachers to satisfy the needs of high attainers, but there is no comparable provision for those who find learning particularly difficult. Further thinking is absolutely essential on how the needs of those who fall behind cumulatively, year on year, will be met.
Expectations should be high, but if targets are unreasonable they will simply generate a widespread sense of failure. It is essential therefore that the draft Programmes of Study are now subjected to scrutiny, moderation and refinement by teachers, researchers and others so that expectations are appropriately pitched.  And the provisions for flexibility and for slower learners must be explored, tested and developed much further.  Tidying up “knowledge” is a desk exercise, but in the real world of classrooms the range of pupil needs is enormous.  These cannot be wished away.
Education must be seen as “the product of interaction between knowledge and individual development” (Expert Panel report, p11).  Curriculum structures must enable teachers to use their expertise to manage this interaction beneficially.  This is the real lesson of international evidence.