Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards

Tomorrow Today I’m part of a group of teachers giving presentations as part of an inset focused on developing a school vision. To help me get a shape I’ve taken the slightly unusual step of writing it out. I won’t use these words exactly, but it has helped me get a structure together and I thought I may as well post it here. I’ve included links here to some of the things I’ve referenced.

My brief as you may know, includes both SMART in year 7 to take a look at a wider view of ‘key skills accreditation’ in the school. But I thought I’d start, as I mean to go on, on a slight tangent by talking about how we got here.

Last term we had a meeting of everyone that had the word ‘skills’ somewhere in their job title, just to see what we were all doing, to try and at best, join up some dots, and at worst make sure we weren’t pulling in different directions.

The overwhelming feeling that came from that very informal meeting was that what we needed, to do our jobs really well, was a big picture. Something to tie what we were all doing in our little avenues back to. So we looked around at what other schools and organisations had done and one of the things that seemed to come back from the successful ones was that they had all undergone a process where at least the staff, and in some cases students and parents, had had a discussion about what they felt was important to that school and that it was from that discussion that the direction of the school drawn. Hence today.

Given my job title and my remit, it may surprise you to hear that I have developed a keen hatred for the word ‘Skills’. A little ironic perhaps, but let me explain why. It has become increasingly clear to me, especially over the last term that we have a big problem with the definition of the word skills. There isn’t one. At least, there IS. In the dictionary. But in education it has become THE buzzword to the extend I that I feel it has lost all meaning.

And there it is, everywhere you look, ‘skills’ being heralded as the panacea to all our ills. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking the idea, but I think that before we can have any kind of sensible conversation we need to understand what ‘skills’ are. We can look to the National Curriculum. The much heralded new ‘skills’ version. We are told that each subject now has to assess ‘skills’ rather than content. That isn’t to say there is no longer any content, but what is prescribed to us know are the ‘skills’ that we are told are at the heart of our subjects and we are free to choose the content that we hang those skills on. Teachers being given autonomy and responsibility for creating the learning experiences of their pupils? Who would have thought it?

As well as subject specific skills then, we have the much trumpeted ‘key skills’ – Communication, ICT, Application of Number, Improving own learning and performance, Working with others and Problem Solving. These are a key part of the Welsh Bacc and there are a range of opportunities for students and staff to fill out lots of bits of paper and get formal accreditation in them.

Accept of course if you look at the Key Skills Framework from DCELLS you’ll see that those last three have been merged into the slightly vacuous ‘Thinking Skills’

Confused? How do you think I feel! I’ve been in meetings where it’s taken us the first hour to work out which bit we’re talking about, because of course how you measure, record, report subject specific skills are different to the key skills and that’s before we come on to all the stuff that’s important, but not listed as a ‘key skill’.

Maybe that’s why, when the RSA launched their Opening Minds programme, which was one of the inspirations for SMART they deliberately avoided the word ‘Skills’ and were quite open about their reasons for doing so – they felt (and this was in the late 90’s) that the word was in danger of becoming overused and so loosing it’s meaning. They instead talked of competencies. Competencies for Learning, Citizenship, Relating to People, Managing Situations and Managing Information

And it’s not just the UK that are doing this – New Zealand have just remodeled their curriculum around 5 ‘Key Competencies’

However, it would appear that we can’t get rid of the word, so instead let’s agree a working definition that we can hopefully frame a discussion around. I’m going to define skills as: The abilities and attributes required to achieved a specific purpose. And from there I’d like us to think about what ‘skills’ we’d like our pupils to have. Be as specific as you like – when we started SMART we knew one of the things we wanted to achieve was that all our pupils would know how to use a library. When you have you discussions please be as out there as you like, but it would be great if you could also start thinking about any big headings that we could use as well. There are 24 specific competencies in the RSA Opening Minds programme, grouped under those five heading.

Just to explain how this process will work – each year group will be asked to make some notes on each of the questions we’ll be posing, to be fed back and collated over lunchtime. In the case of this question we’re looking to see what kind of ideas come to the front from multiple groups. We’d also like you to give some thought as to some ways that we can achieve these ideas. Should we look to the SMART model where some curriculum time is found to focus on developing skills, which are then used and further developed in individual subjects. Should we looking at a model where specific subjects have responsibility for delivering specific skills? Should we be looking to have departments work together in a more structured way? Do we collapse or rethink the timetable in some other way? All your thoughts on this would be appreciated.

One more example. Barrow In Furness went through a similar process to the one we’re currently undergoing, but on a larger scale and this is what they ended up with. Once you start listing there are tens of things we could list down as skills we’d like our students to have, but what I’m hoping to get out of today is a sense of which ones we, as a school, feel are the most important ones for our pupils. I don’t expect our list to be the same as any of these, or the same as any other school that undertakes this process.

If that’s still a little too vacuous for you, there’s this list of the then things everyone should know by the time they leave school. The questions we need to be asking is what do we want our pupils to be able to do. And then of course, how are we going to make sure that they can.

One of the things you’ll hopefully see from the Barrowise stuff is that it extends beyond what has been seen as the traditional remit of the school. In the second half of my bit I’d just like to tackle that bit head on, and try and set this discussion we’re having today in a slightly wider context.

This year’s year 7 will leave University , if they choose to go, in 2018. Now my crystal ball isn’t very good, but just to give us some idea of what the world might be like by then, let’s go back ten years to 1998. I’m at uni, my pager almost at the cutting edge of communications technology. This thing called the Internet is starting to become more well known, and a couple of students at Stanford University had just launched this cool idea for a search engine that they called ‘Google’. Most people who had an internet connection at home, and that wasn’t many, ignored them and carried on using Alta Vista. A mood of positivity was sweeping the country as New Labour were starting to put their policies in place and Francis Fukuyama was predicting that everything was sorted, the West had won the Cold War and liberal democracy was going to sweep the planet and everyone would be happy. Starbucks had just opened their first 60 UK coffee houses!

A lot changes in ten years. Pagers are consigned to the dustbin of history, the vast majority of our students have high speed internet access from their homes and a growing number have access to it via mobile devices. And it’s probably this change, more than any other, that will affect what we do here. The reality is we’re training kids to do jobs that don’t even exist yet. We’re supposed to prepare them for a world that we can’t possibly predict. One thing that we do know about that future though is the acquisition and retention of knowledge is no longer going to be the key. That is partly because there’s just too much of it out there – One statistic I read recently suggested there was as much information in one week’s New York Times as a person was likely to come across in their lifetime in the 18th Century, and partly because people have such easy access to it via the Internet. I’m NOT saying knowledge won’t be important, but I am saying that if schools continue to base themselves on the idea of the transmission of a body of knowledge then we’re letting down the very people we’re supposed to be setting up for life.

And think about those quotes from the start. Let’s not be the ones sat around bemoaning pupils abilities to sharpen their quills, lets make sure that our when this year’s year 7 pupils leave us we have done our very best to get them the skills they need to make the most of their potential in this rapidly changing world.

I will also probably play in extracts from Ken Robinson’s TED Talk (for some reason his recent keynote for SSAT seems to have vanished from their website) and from the latest version of ‘Did you know‘. I was going to include some of Stephen Heppell’s RSA Lecture, but I haven’t got time to cut it down! The whole day will start with some of the quotes from ‘What if?‘ scrolling on the screen as staff arrive.

3 thoughts on “Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards

    1. Thanks for the comments, and thanks for commenting – it’s very humbling to have someone of your calibre dropping by! I’d forgotten about that pearson video, there’s some great stuff there. That RSA talk was one of the main influences into getting me into this whole field of changing education, so many thanks for that as well. I’ll stop now, I’m gushing 😉

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