‘Forget technical and professional education: there’s nothing wrong with the word vocational’

By Bill Lucas

25th November www.tes.com

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Ditching the term ‘vocational’ is likely to perpetuate an even more corrosive split than the academic versus vocational divide, writes a leading educationalist.

There are at least three ways of raising the quality of vocational education. We can look at assessment (as Baroness Wolf did so effectively five years ago), we can look at structures and systems (as Lord Sainsbury has done recently) or we can focus on workforce capability and pedagogy (as we have argued in our research into vocational pedagogy).

Whichever method we prefer – and we need all three – we need first to specify the outcomes we desire from our vocational pathway before designing systems, qualifications and pedagogies. Our choice of language needs to follow not precede such thinking.

Read full article here

Schools will teach ‘soft skills’ from 2017, but assessing them presents a challenge

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20th November
Bill Lucas
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When students go back to school in January 2017 there will be some significant changes to their timetables. As well as learning areas like English, maths and science, there will be some new things to grapple with called “capabilities”.

The Australian curriculum will be focusing not just on the 3Rs – reading, writing and arithmetic – but also on the kinds of “soft” skills young people will need if they are to be successful throughout their lives.

The new capabilities are:

  • Information and communication technology – using technology to access information, create products and solve problems
  • Critical and creative thinking – learning how to think and find ways to approach problems
  • Personal and social – recognising others’ emotions, supporting diversity and working together
  • Ethical – understanding values and concepts that underpin views
  • Intercultural – learning about your own and others’ cultures and beliefs.

Read full blog here

EBac: ‘With what authority is it being argued that art, social sciences, D&T, and the rest, are not “stretching”?’

By Ellen Spencer and Bill Lucas

This article originally appeared in TES 11th February 2016 

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The idea of ‘core academic subjects’ is an example of lazy thinking, argue two education academics

The secretary of state’s foreword to the DfE’s recent consultation on the English Baccalaureate begins with good rational argument, but rapidly moves into political rhetoric with the phrase “the soft bigotry of low expectations…” At first glance clever, this statement is actually snide and unhelpful. It’s also obviously party political.

Into the document itself and there is a more spurious suggestion still, that: “The core academic subjects at school are the primary colours of an educated person’s palette.” This time wearing the metaphor of the curriculum as an artist’s palette with certain subjects on it, the assertion is that there are a set that are “academic”, “a basic right” and a set that (presumably) are not.

At a stroke the idea of a core academic subject has been born in English educational thinking, introduced to an educational world as if neither “core” nor “academic” might be deeply contested areas.

The EBac brings together the core academic subjects that the vast majority of young people should study to age 16. To enter the EBac, pupils must take up to eight GCSE qualifications across five subject ‘pillars’

The subject pillars are English, maths, science, languages and humanities. No arts. No design and technology. No physical education. No social sciences. No religious studies. No interdisciplinary studies. Add your own preferred ‘outrageous’ omissions to our list as you see fit – and enjoy the irony that the art-inspired metaphor mentioned earlier draws from a subject EBac has implicitly defined as non-core and non-academic.

At this stage it is tempting to think of these five subject “pillars” as Ozymandias’s “trunkless legs of stone” discovered by Shelley’s “traveller from an ancient land”, and ultimately found to be worthless: “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair! Nothing beside remains.”

School leaders wanting to retain their own academically challenging, broad and balanced curricula are up against strong incentives to submit to the values of EBac and its curious pillars. For EBac will have secondary school performance measures scrutinised by Ofsted as its enforcer.

Don’t get us wrong. It is right that we are thinking collectively about what should be at the core of a good education. We recently coordinated a submission from ASCL, RSA, PTA UK, Comino Foundation, City & Guilds and others to the Commons Education Select Committee’s enquiry into the purpose of education on this very subject. In it, we argued for a widely owned and stable definition of the core capabilities, knowledge and skills that all students should gain from their time at school.

At such a moment it seems timely to ask more penetrating questions about what we want pupils to learn. Are there some core knowledge, skills, and capabilities that all pupils should acquire? If so, what? Many have argued for inclusion of capabilities, including the CBI, ourselves and the Sutton Trust. The curriculum studied by Australian children for example, includes a range of “capabilities” of obvious importance: from literacy and numeracy to critical and creative thinking.

The academic core

So, where does this idea of an academic subject come from? To understand this we need to head back to the Middle Ages. Academic subjects were originally those taught at the “academy”, at the small number of universities that had been founded at this time. The academic core – the Trivium – consisted of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music theory – the Quadrivium – completed the medieval core academic curriculum, with physics, metaphysics and moral philosophy added to the list soon after.

In the 19th century, with the flourishing of grammar schools, the shorthand for an academic curriculum came to be the 3Rs. But as Sir Christopher Grayling reminds us, the original three Rs were “reading, wroughting and arithmetic – in other words, literacy, making things and numeracy”. Making got dropped in favour of writing.

Looking at the EBac thinking today it is as if this curriculum history never happened, as if there have not been earlier debates. The current, very modern list has emerged with a flourish and not even a backwards glance at how our thinking has developed.

If “core academic” is being used today as a proxy for being rigorous and demanding, it is logical to assume that all other academic subjects are ill-founded and undemanding. Presumably practical and vocational subjects, like the earlier wroughting, are valued even less.

Unsurprisingly many Russell Group universities are comfortable with EBac. But what about the institutions who will be providing learning for 3 million apprentices? What about those whose talents take them to universities and colleges specialising in the applied disciplines that we also need? How will EBac impact on the morale of the teachers of non-EBac subjects? To what extent will it perpetuate and entrench the academic-vocational divide?

And what of other curriculum selection criteria such as usefulness for employability and for civic life?

It’s certainly important to get the right blend of “academic” and “vocational” to ensure that all children can find their best possible life trajectory regardless of background. Only then might we want to ask whether (and which) core subjects are the best way to develop these knowledge, skills, and capabilities.

Limiting curriculum opportunities

In the list of “core” EBac subjects there is an assumption that vocational ones, and those left off the list, are fundamentally low in intellectual rigor; that we are doing a disservice to “intelligent” children if they don’t opt for EBac. But with what authority is it being argued that art, social sciences, D&T, and the rest, are not “stretching”? What criteria have been used to determine that our 2016 Trivium and Quadrivium is fit for today’s complex world?

Not limiting the curriculum opportunities we offer young people is a noble goal. No child should be disadvantaged by inappropriately narrow subject combinations or under-ambitious advice. Yet half of this problem was tackled by a radical overhauling of vocational offerings prompted by Alison Wolf’s review.

In deciding what children should study, the RSA identified two key issues: “whether the pupil is likely to succeed in the EBac subjects, and how far studying this set of GCSEs contributes positively to their future education and career ambitions.” Courses of study should be a positive choice and not a “Plan B”. If a child loves art, have them study art. It’s more likely to be useful to them in their future vocation than something they do for a false sense of keeping options open.

EBac, the SSAT suggests, will effectively limit choice for the majority. Pupils who would benefit from greater breadth and for whom EBac is not the best choice, lose out. Worse, even those for whom the so-called “rigour” of EBac might be best: if schools are not required to enter students they don’t think will achieve, the proposed universal benefits of a core post-14 entitlement, “is being lost on the altar of the 5-results measure.” Back to the Ozymandias pillars and Shelley’s subsequent despair.

If schools are avoiding doing the best for particular pupils because of the risk associated with performance measures, then the performance measures are hindering rather than helping. In reality, manipulating children’s options to keep them “open” for the sake of it can sometimes be worse advice than telling a student simply to study what interests them.

The idea of core academic subjects is an example of lazy thinking. It seems unconnected to the conversations being had in other educationally high-performing countries about what it is to be educated today. In England, we need high-quality options that are broad, rich and deep for all children, not the five restricting pillars that we are being offered.

Ellen Spencer and Bill Lucas, creators of the Expansive Education Network, are based at the Centre for Real-World Learning at the University of Winchester

Putting the body back into school

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Blog on Intelligence in the Flesh- new book by Guy Claxton, Emeritus Professor, University of Winchester

When schools were originally being designed, they incorporated the then-widespread view that minds were totally different from and smarter than bodies. Everything to do with human intelligence at its best – logical reasoning, linguistic fluency, aesthetic appreciation, mathematical sophistication – were exclusively to do with the mind, and had nothing to do with the body. Bodies were just ways of getting your mind from place to place, and of taking care of the physiological housekeeping. Thus the curriculum was built around a hierarchy of esteem for different kinds of human accomplishment, with the most abstract and rational at the top and the most bodily at the bottom. The more intelligence you had, the more you would, almost as a law of nature, aspire to the realms of mathematics and grammar, and disdain the lowly pursuits of carpentry and football. If you were ‘bright’ you did Latin and trigonometry; if ‘dull’ you did Physical Education and Design Technology. Those values persist to this day. Look at which subjects get included in (or excluded from) the high-status ‘English baccalaureate’. Look at how much time each gets during the week.

This view of minds and bodies is now comprehensively discredited, so the foundations of traditional schooling are no longer solid rock but have crumbled into sand. The new science of ‘embodied cognition’ – the basis of my book Intelligence in the Flesh – tells us that bodies are not merely vehicles or skivvies of the mind, they are critical to it. For example:

  • How you think depends on how you are sitting. Sit up straight, chest out, and you will solve anagram puzzles more quickly and accurately. Adopt such a ‘power pose’ before going in to an interview and you will perform better.
  • The depth of your normal breathing correlates with your IQ. Breathe faster or more shallowly and the quality of the energy being provided to those little grey cells deteriorates and you can entertain fewer and less complicated thoughts.
  • Develop greater sensitivity to your heartbeat and your decision-making and your creativity improve. Einstein famously said that he got the insights that led to the theory of relativity by attending to physical stirrings and promptings in his body.
  • Many people – philosophers as well as footballers – think their best thoughts when they are being physically active. Theatre directors as well as sports coaches know that many smart people have to move to think. Craftsmen and artists of all kinds know that you think with your hands as well as with your brain.
  • Whether you find arithmetic involving negative numbers easy or hard turns out to depend on physical imagery. If you think of ‘subtracting’ as taking things away from a pile, you can’t imagine having less than no-things, but if you see it as walking backwards on a path towards where you started, it’s easy to imagine walking back through ‘zero’ and heading in the opposite direction. Our concrete, physical experience underpins even our loftiest thoughts.
  • Change your body – change even your awareness of your body – and your precious intelligence – memory, problem-solving, creativity – changes too. Your whole body – your heart, your stomach, your immune system – talk so constantly and intricately to your brain, that every little somatic shift conditions what the rest of the brain is capable of thinking.

This science has caused a seismic shift in the ground on which education is built. Emotions are not anathema to intelligence, they are integral to it. Take away our feelings and we are not more intelligent but less. Drain the passion out of our intelligence and we are left with a kind of bloodless cleverness that may enable us to bamboozle political opponents with rhetoric tricks but which is quite unable to get to the human heart of the matter. Our top schools (and Ofsted) have prided themselves on turned out future leaders who are erudite and rational, but who, very often, lack common sense, let alone the wise judgement that the world needs. Meanwhile, every year tens of thousands of intelligent young people who are sensitive to the nuances of the physical and social worlds, but unable or unwilling to mug up the Periodic Table or the sub-plots of Othello for an exam, are made, iniquitously, to feel stupid or second rate. But it is the defenders of this antiquated and lop-sided curriculum who should feel ashamed of themselves, not the dancers, carers and mechanics.

Buy Intelligence in the Flesh here

‘A “fixed” view of intelligence certainly constrains the potential of educators to develop young minds’

This article originally appearing in TES, 26th November 2015.
 Genetics and Plomin
The recent TES interview with Robert Plomin raises an old educational chestnut about nature and nurture. The article speculates that genetics research might become an inevitable force in education: maybe one day teachers will have DNA data at their fingertips to tell them who might require extra maths support.

It is highly debatable whether we would want to take such a deterministic view of children’s intelligence, particularly given the multitude of genes in question, each of which bear such minute influence. A “fixed” view of intelligence certainly constrains the potential of educators to develop young minds.

But the idea that intelligence is learnable is not just wishful thinking. Genetics in intelligence research is, in many cases, a flawed science. Like any research it carries a risk of being misinterpreted, or used in unethical ways. But at its core is a narrow understanding of intelligence that is simply not in line with the growing consensus that intelligence is largely learnable. It is unhelpful for teachers and learners to think about genetic constraints, when even these are open to external influence.

Misuse of genetic research

While Plomin doesn’t like the idea that genetic data be used deterministically to “keep everyone in their place”, it isn’t hard to see how this would be unavoidable in an educational values system that glorifies the academic over the practical.

He argues that if test data were misused, we should blame the culture and the policy and not the science. His reference to Brave New World and genetic “castes” resonates because this sort of misuse is not unimaginable.

Is it too far-fetched to imagine a world where children and young people are assigned a figure representing their inherited intelligence? One that is required in college applications, let’s say. Those using the information might well be quick to forget how malleable even the inherited aspect of intelligence actually is.

Any requirement to make available our own unique genome might be seen as an invasion of privacy. One can imagine being refused life assurance because we may have a predisposition toward a certain life-limiting condition. Yet equally unsavoury is the idea of shoehorning children into a particular pathway because it allows them to “develop the way their genetic propensities are pushing them”.

What would be the result of a scenario where genetic propensity is given higher status than a child’s (perhaps unidentified as yet) interest or passion in life? This might push some down an academic route, and others down a vocational route, further reinforcing a false dichotomy between mind and matter, brain and hand, and their association with “smart” and less intelligent.

In Brave New World Revisited, Aldous Huxley concluded that the world was becoming like his dystopian vision much faster than he originally thought. We cannot so easily separate the science from the way it is used. A debate about the appropriateness of the study of intelligence carries on to this day.

Leaving values aside for the moment, I suspect such tests are an impossible dream (or nightmare) because the science itself is contestable.

Critiques of genetic research

One critique of heritability of intelligence research is the reliability and validity of the research, which typically relies on studies of identical twins reared apart. Looking at a number of such studies, Jay Joseph concluded that the evidence does not support the claims. Undermining studies, researchers falsely classified twins as “reared apart”, which is notoriously difficult to achieve. For example, some “separated” twins were actually placed with members of the extended family. Others were placed into families correlated for socio-economic status, perhaps after being raised together for a number of years.

The Council for Responsible Genetics states that, based on the “massively flawed and environmentally confounded” studies, their exaggerated claims, and lack of replicability, “the evidence suggests that genes for the major psychiatric disorders, as well as for IQ and personality, do not exist”. While intelligence, and proxies for intelligence (such as IQ test performance or educational attainment) are heritable in some part, there is no identifiable gene or set of genes that make labelling of individuals possible.

The Social Science Genetic Association Consortium (SSGAC) has also put to bed the idea that we are anywhere near finding genes for educational attainment. A ‘sobering’ editorial reports that “it now seems likely that many of the published findings of the last decade are wrong or misleading and have not contributed to real advances in knowledge“.

SSGAC’s initial “genome wide association study” looked at 126,599 individuals and found three genetic variants linked to educational attainment. It makes extremely modest claims for their effects, which, as Ewen Callaway reports in the journal Nature, “are maddeningly small”.

Genes are strongly mediated by environmental factors and even IQ is not fixed

Intelligence is controlled in only some part by many multiples of genes. It can only be quantified by proxy. IQ tests, for example, can be used to track some aspects of intelligence relatively reliably. IQ, however, is absolutely not fixed and so it is meaningless to judge a person for the fixedness of their intelligence.

Environmental factors have so great an impact that genetics cannot quantify even the so-called genetic portion of a person’s intelligence. Genes only affect propensity, not opportunity. Genetic factors may impact on intelligence indirectly through, say, their influence on preferences. For instance, a person might like reading but have access only to dull or limited reading material. Not only this, but the environment can modify or even cancel out the influence of genetic predispositions. What if policy dictates that the person’s access to reading material (or spectacles!) be restricted?

This is to say nothing of the aspects of intelligence under the influence of the learner. We should note that Alfred Binet, father of the IQ concept, believed strongly in the plasticity of intelligence:

“Some recent philosophers have given their moral approval to the deplorable verdict that an individual’s intelligence is a fixed quantity…We must protest and act against this brutal pessimism…it has no foundation whatsoever.”

Dr Ellen Spencer and Professor Bill Lucas work at the Expansive Education Network at the University of Winchester

Guest post: Dr Ellen Spencer looks at the link between anxiety and creativity and asks: how can we strike a healthy balance?

The label ‘neurotic’ is not a particularly flattering one although, as we will see, it can have implicit positive aspects. Perhaps because of the neurotic nature of so many of the world’s contributors to science and the arts, creativity is often an associated trait. Behind the stereotypically ‘brooding, tortured, genius’ may hide a highly creative individual with the ability to solve problems. Or write sonnets!

There are logical as well as research demonstrated reasons why this should be so. Cause and effect are a little more complex to pin down, however.

As a personality trait, neuroticism is characterised by negative emotional states like anxiety, fear, frustration, and envy. It is contrasted with the ‘stable’ trait (although it should not be confused with neurosis, which is a class of mental disorders). Neurotic individuals are those scoring highly on psychometric tests for the trait.

Although personality traits are tendencies, expansive educators believe that aspects of them can be cultivated as learnable habits. Contrary to commonly held beliefs, personality traits can change even in adulthood.

A number of positive behaviours can be emergent from neurotic tendencies toward anxiety. Because of this characteristic, we might think of neurotics as being more likely to be:

  • diligent (as they double check things for correctness)
  • practical (maybe they are less likely to inflate predictions of success, and more likely to predict potential problems), and
  • reliable (as they worry about letting others down).

In a similar way, neuroticism has links with creativity through some of the behaviours it can lead to. For example, neurotic individuals are typically more able to problem-solve (a particular measure of creativity) than their less angst-prone colleagues.

To some degree, various behaviours associated with neuroticism can be beneficial for health as well as creativity. There is such a thing as ‘healthy neuroticism’! A study by the University of Rochester Medical Center found a positive relationship between neuroticism, health, and conscientiousness: one of the Big 5 traits. In an earlier blog post on character, I mentioned the Big 5 personality traits including

  • stability (neuroticism’s opposite)
  • openness (creative, curious, broad-minded)
  • extraversion (outgoing, friendly, talkative)
  • agreeableness (helpful, warm, sympathetic), and
  • conscientiousness (organised, responsible, hardworking)

Presence of both neuroticism and conscientiousness was associated with better health in this study. Under certain circumstances then, we might conclude that neuroticism can be good for health.

The research team looked at the presence of a particular immune protein associated with certain chronic health conditions such as heart disease. Significantly, they found that higher levels of neuroticism were related to lower levels of inflammation when conscientiousness was also higher.

In terms of cause and effect? The research team wondered whether the conscientiousness of ‘healthy neurotics’ might lead them to be (a) hyper vigilant about health symptoms needing attention, and (b) less likely to engage in certain health damaging behaviours such as smoking and heavy drinking in the first place.

The term ‘healthy neurotic’ was coined by Howard Friedman in 2000. Friedman noted the vast amount of evidence that well-adjusted, socially stable, well-integrated people are at significantly lower risk of disease because of their behaviours:

This is not because there is a disease-prone personality with simple, direct links to ill health, but rather primarily because certain people wind up with unhealthy habits and behaviors… (p.1103)

Not only are these individuals healthier, it’s not hard to see how people exhibiting higher levels of conscientiousness and neuroticism might be more likely to be organised, goal-oriented, good at planning, and reflective. In other words: ‘high functioning’.  Nicholas Turiano, heading up the study commented that:

These people are likely to weigh the consequences of their actions, and therefore their level of neuroticism coupled with conscientiousness probably stops them from engaging in risky behaviors.

A new paper, published by King’s College psychologist Adam Perkins and colleagues, sheds more light. Perkins does not look at the conscientiousness trait. Instead, he develops a ‘mechanistic neurocognitive account’ – a kind of cause and effect explanation – that links neuroticism and creativity by describing mental processes. In particular, one called ‘self-generated thought’.

People with neurotic tendencies worry more. They ruminate on problems in a way that verges on fretting. The very act of thinking in this way, however, can help produce solutions to problems. Perkins tells us that there is some experimental evidence linking neuroticism to creativity via the problem solving benefits of rumination related processes, such as worrying.

This is where self-generated thought comes in. Neurotic people tend to

  • be more sensitive to perceiving threats from the environment
  • experience negative states of mind even when there is no actual threat
  • have negative thoughts and feelings of an apparently abstract nature because they tend to think beyond the current situation
  • come up with more original solutions to abstract problems.

Neuroticism is caused by (possibly genetic) brain circuitry factors that lead to an extreme proneness to engage in negatively-hued self-generated thoughts. This is, essentially, a hyperactive imagination that works irrespective of actual threats in the environment.

Just like the creative individual, the neurotic individual has a proclivity for prolonged, self-generated rumination. But it is the negative slant on the thoughts of the neurotic individual that makes him or her neurotic. And it is the high levels of self-generated thought that cause neurotics to experience negative thoughts (emotions / psychological states) even in the absence of a threat stimulus.

‘Stable’ creative individuals tend to ruminate (and thereby come up with creative solutions). So do neurotic individuals. But neurotic people are, on balance, more creative than your average. Why should this be so? We know that neurotic brains are wired to dwell on even non-existent threats; to be more prone to negative toned self-generated thought. So when neurotics ruminate, their thinking develops in a negative way, which itself is a vehicle for creative problem-solving.

Creative solutions to do not arise in a vacuum. Creativity is often more about ‘perspiration than inspiration’. Self-generated thought occurs when the mind wanders to areas apparently unrelated to the current environment. It is not necessarily intentional. Yet these wanderings – or daydreams – are based on prior experience. When individuals engage in self-generated thoughts, they experience the freedom to bring existing knowledge to bear on current problems, such as making sense of who they are and deciding what to do next. Thus, the process of self-generated thought provides a means by which exposure to a stimulus brings about patterns of thinking that help make sense of the world. Or, importantly, that leads to creative solutions.

The mind-wanderings of the neurotic individual are more conducive to creative problem solving because they, naturally, dwell on problems. And, says Perkins,

a key feature of creative thought is the ability to generate solutions to problems that are distinct from the traditional way the problem is solved (p. 493).

Want to be more creative? Learn to harness your anxiety! We have all tapped into the motivating energy of anxiety at times. Anxiety drives school children to study for exams, technicians to be alert, supervisors to improve their people skills, and scientists or executives to innovate.

A healthy neurotic harnesses their natural levels of anxiety in positive ways. These techniques can be applied by anyone and might include:

  • Keeping the ‘big picture’ in mind. Worrying about the right things that will contribute to your overall goal. Don’t ‘major on minor issues’!
  • Mulling over worthwhile problems for longer and in more depth
  • Taking a deep breath to prevent overwhelming emotions taking over. Making use of motivating emotions rather than being suffocated by them
  • Pausing at times of anxiety to ask ‘why do I feel this way?’, ‘do I need to take some action?’
  • Being dogged in pursuit of a solution
  • Recognising when your own default internal mental processes are pushing you to panic and grasp opportunities instead of running from them
  • Practising self-discipline
  • Releasing tension in healthy ways, such as relaxation or exercise. Not depending on substances as an outlet.
  • Pursuing a problem… and then take a break to allow your mind to work subconsciously. Studies have shown the importance of daydreaming but unconscious thought only works effectively if there is enough raw material for the mind to join together!

While we are still a long way from being able to explain neuroticism fully, its associated behaviours clearly have some creative benefits.

Neuroticism’s significance for creativity might well come from a tendency to overthink. Knowing this, expansive educators can ponder how they might help develop the habits of those with neurotic tendencies, as well as those without.