There is some very powerful rhetoric in the Education White Paper: Educational Excellence Everywhere. Who cannot warm to the ideas that educational excellence is for everyone and that schools and teachers should have the freedom to teach in the manner which is most appropriate for their pupils? But, how can you ensure there is excellence for every pupil if teachers and schools have the freedom to teach how they like? The answer in the White Paper is to make sure that teaching and learning can be measured using easily quantifiable outcomes. The processes of teaching and learning, the pedagogy underpinning how we make subjects accessible to pupils, no longer seems to be important as long as pupils can pass the test. Schools and individual teachers will be held accountable for how well their pupils pass these tests, tests that have been devised by the government.
Is this real freedom?
The White Paper indicates that the focus will be on embedding existing reforms to the accountability measures in education. This might come as a relief to those of us who have been in education for over 30 years where the standards debate has seen a gradual increase in the pace of reform. However, recent reforms have further emphasised accountability measures, linking them to pay and conditions and restricting pupils to the range and scope of subjects with which they can engage. Is this in the interest of teachers and pupils? Schools and teachers will now be held accountable for the number of children who pass academic subjects highlighted in the Ebacc. In effect, the White Paper supports the idea that:
Being academic (focusing on theory) = educational excellence.
It is interesting that the place of theory has been questioned when it comes to teacher education (DfE, 2010) but appears to be the priority when it comes to pupils’ learning. Focusing on academic education addresses the assertion that “knowledge matters” and
“the ability to think demands a basic knowledge of the thing about which one is thinking”(Woodhead in Kitchen, 2014: xi)
but in many tests the focus is on knowledge recall rather than promoting thinking. Knowledge and knowing go beyond recalling facts. Testing facts can provide a limited and even distorted picture of what a person knows and understands. Measuring the recall of facts consigns people to think in a particular ways about particular knowledge suggesting compliance and conformity rather than creativity and individuality (worryingly compliance and conformity underpin many forms of extremism that exist in our world today). Testing facts looks backwards rather than forwards and ignores the potential for pupils to contribute their own creative thinking. Pupils need access to knowledge but they also need opportunities to share their own personal perspectives, experiences, aptitudes and capabilities related to that knowledge.
We have always had tests and always will. They can provide a helpful snapshot of what a person might know at a particular time in a particular place but there are other forms of summative assessment. The most rewarding teaching experiences I have had are when knowledge is used as a catalyst to promote thinking. It is more difficult to measure thinking but infinitely more engaging for the learner:
“the unexamined life is not worth living for the human being” (Socrates from Plato’s Apology in Hetherington, 2012: 31).
Thinking is: “the highest and perhaps purest activity of which men are capable” (Arendt, 1958: 5).
If pupils are just taught how to pass the test rather than to use knowledge to promote thinking then they become automatons that expect to be told what to do and say. They lose the potential to develop a sense of their own individual identify. The process of acquiring knowledge through thinking is engaging and empowering. When this thinking involves metacognition it can provide the skills and aspiration to acquire further knowledge:
“Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking” (Dewey, 1916, p.181).
This is real freedom.
- Arendt, H. (1958) The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Dewey, J. (1916) Democracy and Education. New York: MacMillan.
- DfE (2010) The Importance of Teaching: The Schools White Paper 2010. London: Crown Copyright.
- Hetherington, S. (ed.) (2012) Epistemology: Key Thinkers. London: Continuum.
- Kitchen W. H. (2014) Authority and the Teacher. London: Bloomsbury Academic.