Student choice vs. an army of straw men

| by James Mannion |

I stumbled across a blog this week which appears to be a critique of my last blog. I say ‘appears’ because the piece, by Michael Fordham, firstly characterises my last post Imagine a school… as an argument for “turning the school curriculum into a market by turning pupils into consumers”, which is a bit of a stretch, and then goes on to shoot down a number of positions that I do not hold and did not propose.

To respond to Michael’s concerns in full will take some doing – hence writing this as a post, rather than commenting on Michael’s blog. First, to recap: in my ‘Imagine a school’ post, which was described by @HeyMissSmith (I think sarcastically) as a “Utopian song”, I made the following wish list for secondary school reform:

  • Alongside (note, not instead of) the traditional range of subject disciplines, students should be able to choose from a range of ‘short, optional courses in topics such as those I suggested in my last-but-one post Subject-based learning: let’s blow this baby wide open;
  • The decision as to which courses a student will take (there would be one per half-term, or 6 over the course of a year) would be made jointly in a 3-way meeting between the students, their parent/carer(s) and a dedicated personal tutor;
  • In all subjects, students should be grouped together in classes according to aptitude and/or interest, rather than chronological age (so-called ‘stage not age’ teaching);
  • Instead of exams being used as a mandatory social filter for ranking students along a scale from success to failure, all formal qualifications should a) be optional and b) be available at different grades, like music grades or karate belts (as in “watch out – I have a black belt in Statistics”). In this way, every grade achieved would rightly be recognised as just that – an achievement, or a step along a journey – rather than as a stick to hit children and teachers with.

Now, I am very much aware that proposals such as these are some way off the radar in terms of the current education debate, and it would be rather hopeful to expect people to get on board with these ideas immediately. And so I am grateful to Michael for engaging with my suggestions – even if I don’t think he’s really arguing against what I am proposing – and I look forward to taking the conversation further, if anyone can bear it. That said, I will now attempt to slay some of the myriad straw men that lay siege to my Utopian song – well, its first verse anyway.

Choice ≠ consumerism

Michael begins by associating my proposal for optional short courses to run alongside (not instead of) traditional subjects with the doctrine of economic liberalism. I had to look up what this means. Economic liberalism is defined on Wikipedia as “a system of economics that describes the organisation of an economy on individual lines, which means that the greatest possible number of economic decisions are made by individuals or households rather than by collective institutions or organisations”.

In a world where there’s a price tag on pretty much everything, it is understandable that someone might think of choice as automatically being the same thing as consumerism. However I am not suggesting we turn education into a marketplace (defined as “an actual or nominal place where forces of demand and supply operate, and where buyers and sellers interact to trade goods, services, or contracts or instruments, for money or barter”). I’m not even suggesting we turn schools into a marketplace of ideas (defined as “a rationale for freedom of expression based on an analogy to the economic concept of a free market”, which holds that “the truth will emerge from the competition of ideas in free, transparent public discourse”. 

In the proposal to which Michael refers I am talking about neither trade nor truth but two simple, practical ideas: a) introducing a series of short (6-week) courses to run alongside the ongoing study of traditional subjects; and b) extending this small degree of choice to every year group. Michael sees this as analogous with buying a computer:

If I want to buy a new computer, I can choose from several different companies offering different machines, and I therefore choose the best machine I can get at the price I can afford. If a company is pricing its machines incorrectly then it will not make any money and collapse. In a market, things need to be allowed to fail.

I can see where this is going, but before we get on to the ‘being allowed to fail’ thing – this is not a good analogy. Computers, despite the choice of shapes, colours and specifications, all do pretty much the same thing. An education, meanwhile, is a diet of learning where the choices vary in lots of ways, and serve wildly different purposes. Choosing a computer from many similar machines and choosing a balanced diet of learning from a broad menu of wildly different topics are not the same thing.

A better analogy is that of a restaurant menu. At the moment we have only a set menu of traditional dishes. What I am suggesting is a hybrid model between the set menu and the a la carte menus – a diet of learning with some core components and some optional extras on the side. As children look around the current ‘restaurant’, they see adults eating all these wildly interesting foods – sizzling platters and exotic fruit salads:

Child: “Oh, pleeeease let me have a taste! But I don’t want to eat an entire lobster thermidor! I just want to know what that succulent tailmeat tastes like.”

Adult: “Nope – it’s potatoes and broccoli for you I’m afraid until you’re at least 16 years old. We know best – it didn’t do us any harm!!”

Child: “Well adults are kind of making a mess of the world, so…”

Adult: “What part of no do you not understand? Now not another word, or it will be lunch isolation for you…”

Too big to fail?

I think a certain amount of Michael’s blog can be read as a simple misunderstanding of what I was proposing; perhaps I didn’t express myself clearly enough. For example, he writes:

Making the curriculum a market perhaps incentivises teachers to ‘sell’ their subjects, which perhaps involves focusing on the jazzy surface details, and not on the complex fundamentals of a subject that are difficult to explain in a sales pitch.

However, in my Utopian song I wrote that these optional short courses should run alongside traditional subjects – not instead of them. I anticipate that these 6-week short courses (e.g. in touch typing, structured debating, introductions to economics or sociology or whatever) would run for 2 or 3 lessons a week, maximum – certainly no more than any other subject. 

Because I am not proposing that all subjects compete with one another in some Hunger Games-style fight to the death, Michael’s reasonable concerns about whether an unpopular subject would or should be allowed to go to the wall take care of themselves: it wouldn’t happen because it’s not what is being proposed.

All about that baseline

Michael then gets into some practical concerns:

As a teacher, my ideal is to be able to sit down with a group of pupils and to have a fairly good idea of what they have already studied. In some subjects, where there is more of a linear model of progression in the subject – I am thinking here of subjects such as mathematics, languages and (to an extent) some aspects of the natural sciences – prior knowledge is frequently a prerequisite for learning about something new. In other subjects – such as history or literature – it is very useful for a teacher to know what has already been studied, for this will help to shape the explanations and comparisons that he or she wants to make. Pupil choice interferes with this, for it increases the number of starting points that pupils have.

What I am proposing is that for most of the short courses, there would be a series of levels (I suggested beginner, intermediate, advanced and self-managed, although I’m open to other models – some topics might require more or fewer gradations). The beginners’ course would assume no prior knowledge, and each subsequent level would be predicated on the basis that the student had completed and passed the less advanced course that precedes it. It’s a mastery model of learning – trads should love this stuff.

Cool into complex does not go

Michael goes on to say:

If you think your subject is just a ‘collection of cool stuff’, then perhaps [having multiple starting points] does not matter, as each bit of ‘cool stuff’ is independent of the others. If, however, you see you subject as a discipline with complex interlocking components that have to be learnt, practised and honed over time, then pupil choice is highly disruptive.”

I think this depends on the subject. Learning to touch type is neither cool nor complex. It’s a boring slog that needs time, guidance and deliberate practice. (Quick disclaimer: I did a 6-week course in touch-typing when I was at 6th form college, as part of a ‘complementary studies’ programme. In fact, it was called ‘keyboard skills’ – I signed up because I thought I’d get to play around with synthesisers in the music room. In the event, I found myself seated in front of an electric typewriter and given two items: a really boring book to copy typing exercises from, and a tea towel to cover my hands. It was neither cool nor complex, but by the end of the 6 weeks I could touch-type – a skill I find useful daily almost 25 years later.)

In essence, this is a variation on the knowledge/skills debate. Many of the things on my list – analysing the media, public speaking, making films, cooking, first aid, managing your finances etc – these are not really “disciplines with complex interlocking components that have to be learnt, practised and honed over time”, but skills which, once mastered, can stay with you forever. This, for me, is the beginning and end of the knowledge/skills debate: you kind of need them both, so let’s get on with teaching both really well and stop arguing endlessly about which is more important.

I do think some of Michael’s concerns about teachers selling courses by overplaying the “cool stuff” are valid, and I think this should be part of the quality assurance process that would go into preparing a 6-week course (which would have to be planned in advance and be ratified by governors, say).

Ti-i-i-ime is on your side. Yes it is. Really

Michael ends with the battle cry used by many a trad as a pre-emptive strike against anyone who would dare suggest we could do things differently. It goes something like this:

Time is preciousssssss. Which of these lovely subjects would you take away? Because we have plenty more traditional sounding subjects waiting in the wings. Your 6-week course in touch typing can get to the back of the queue mate.

The truth is – controversy klaxon – secondary schools are hopelessly inefficient. Each student has around 11,000 hours of lessons – 5,000 of which are in secondary school. How many lessons of the 5,000 lessons I endured at secondary school were as useful as that 6-week course in touch-typing? Certainly not the interminable “cluster analysis” project I did for GCSE geography, where I spent weeks pacing around my local town, printing out maps and scaling up distances to work out how close shoe shops are to one another.

It’s actually easier to make time for other stuff in a secondary school than one might imagine. Without wanting to make this about my PhD study, I have worked in a school where we ran timetabled Learning to Learn lessons throughout years 7, 8 and 9 (5 a week in Y7, 3 a week in Y8 and 2.5 a week in Y9). Despite having 400 fewer lessons of subject-based learning over those 3 years, the Learning to Learn students went on to achieve the best set of results in the school’s history. Furthermore the Pupil Premium gap closed considerably, from the bottom up (there’s more than one way to close a gap). My point is simple: yes, we ate into a bit of the time usually allocated to other subjects. And no, the world didn’t stop. In fact, it got a little bit better.

In summary then: breezes

Michael concludes:

Those advocating more pupil choice in terms of what they want to study are asking us to turn the school curriculum into a market.

No they aren’t. At least, not this one.

This is not something I can support.

Yet. Maybe. You never know.

2 Comments

  1. Why should there not be a hunger games fight to the death.

    I am mindful that we might conflate schools fighting to the death, with subjects fighting to the death, with courses fighting to the death.

    We have only had the State Education System in the UK for the best part of 150 years I believe, but knowledge was passed on before this, mainly to the elites who could retain their hold on power. We now have a system for all which is run by the elites who retain their hold on power.

    Abolish the system, it isn’t necessary now we have technology to do what books and blackboards used to do 150 years ago. Let kids choose via their parents and facilitate learning via online/platform solutions. You know it makes sense.

    The very idea that we are discussing “which subject is most important?” in 2017 is simply daft British pompous arrogance which many are keen to avoid losing. It’s a big world out there and it isn’t difficult to see why we are in danger of being left behind in the global education stakes.

    I have seen elsewhere the idea that if we give a choice to stakeholders then History teachers may not have a full timetable. Heavens to Betsy.

  2. Thanks for your comments, though I think you essentially re-iterate the points here that I criticised rather than dealing with them.

    All of the stuff about “this is on top of the normal curriculum” really boils down to a wish to take time away from ‘inefficient’ subjects and to open this time up to other things. Now perhaps teachers you know waste time in their lessons. Most history teachers I know do not. They face a constant challenge to teach the curriculum they want to teach. If time is being wasted in a school, then senior leaders should be doing something about to ensure the subject is being taught well in the time allocated.

    Also, you don’t really handle at all here the other point which is that, if you think something is important, surely everyone should study it. I can see that things like first aid (or public speaking or managing finances etc.) are all important – so important that I think probably all children should learn them. So why make them optional? Allocate time and teach them to everyone. If it’s not important enough that you think all children should learn it, then find something else that is – there’s a long list of people queueing up with ideas for you.

    Finally, ‘stage not age’ is a fashionable idea that comes around from time to time. It works if you have two things. (1) A clear and detailed curriculum that specifies what exactly is learnt in a stage and (2) the practical ability to group students who have reached that stage. It works really well for instrumental tuition, as each grade for a particular board is very specific, and tuition groups range from 1-5 people. Working out (1) is relatively easy to do, but (2) is almost impossible in mainstream schools. ‘Stage not age’ is a trendy idea – cool in theory.

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