Getting the language right

This week a group of us gathered at the RSA to think about an obvious but important question. If expansive education is so important, how come the current administration does not apparently express any interest?

Many of the pioneering organizations with whom we collaborate, along with NAPE and SSAT, came together in a meeting facilitated by the RSA’s new Head of Education Joe Hallgarten and I. Rather than resting on our laurels we focused instead on what we can do collectively to make a more compelling case for expansive education.

We agreed that we must not fall into the trap of binary thinking where we allow sceptics to present expansive education as a liberal alternative to a focus on improving the quality of the school experience. Rather it is a set of well-researched methods which when carefully applied lead to better teaching and learning and to the expansion of capabilities in students which will enable them to thrive in an uncertain world.

In the (old) argument knowledge is somehow pitted against skills or competences as if it were an either/or choice. It is not. We need both. You cannot fully enter into a historical debate until you have learned to think like an historian and developed both the capacity to empathise and to weigh evidence analytically. RSA Chief Executive Matthew Taylor suggested that the bridge between knowledge and skills is enquiry. For it is through the disposition to question that we create new knowledge and new meaning. We intend to explore this potentially powerful concept further as we talk to others about expansive approaches to learning.

Inquiry is at the heart of what the Expansive Education does. Teachers do it. Students do it. As Phillippa Cordingley from CUREE put it, ‘what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander too. 

This seems entirely appropriate to us.

End of Year Report

It’s that time of year so, here is mine. Although it’s only nine months since we launched the Expansive Education Network, we are already beginning to make exciting progress.

Twelve pioneering partner organisations have recently been joined by a thirteenth, ASDAN, and there are more waiting in the wings.

An initial group of eight universities in England and Wales has been augmented by the addition of Newcastle and Brighton, and discussions underway with a number of others. Most recently we have gone international, welcoming Deakin University to the international family of expansive educators.

We have two powerful supporters in Pearson – who themselves are developing and piloting an expansive model of learning and school improvement – and with the Comino Foundation, a charity long-committed to developing the kinds of capabilities in young people which will help them thrive.

Over the year we have held more than twenty events in England and Wales. We have also taken the message of expansive learning to New Zealand, South America and Australia. In the last of these we have found not only a university host but a publisher – the Australian Council for Educational Research – who has commissioned us to write a book about the emerging global stories of expansive education.

A highlight for me was a conversation I had the pleasure of chairing between Guy Claxton and Habits of Mind creator Art Costa, highlights of which will shortly be on the site.

280 teachers are now members and we are just beginning to hear from those who are finishing their action research.

I have been much taken with one school’s enquiry into parental engagement. Their hunch is that, by actively involving parents in thinking about their children’s emerging self-concept as a learner, the school will enhance the learning power of its children. The enquiry has involved them in creating a parent forum where these issues can be explored. The results are truly innovative and definitely promising. 

The school has begun to develop two learning personality ‘profiles’, one for parents and one for students. These act as models for them to facilitate conversation about what each can do to maximize learning. So, for example, the parent one talks of encouraging persistence and praising effort or specific learning choices made by their offspring. The students, by contrast, focus on developing strategies for keeping going when they get stuck and seeing the value of learning from their mistakes. 

But the real originality of the school’s approach is that it has managed to create the kind of environment in which its parents are choosing to talk about the impact of their parenting style on the image their children have of themselves as apprentice learners.

This is research with a small ‘r’ of exactly the kind we are hoping to cultivate and which will show how expansive education helps to create outstanding learning in schools.

Next term we will be starting a new feature on eedNET where we showcase great examples of teacher enquiry for a wider audience and research I have just highlighted will be our first one.

Watch this space!

The wider political environment

All the while we are existing in a policy environment in which it is not clear that expansive education is even remotely on the government’s agenda. Its talk is mainly of structures such as free schools, UTCs and academisation which, whatever their value, seem overtly politically motivated. There is much curriculum teasing and tinkering with reform of the curriculum and the so called eBacc. A gloriously misunderstood word, the IB is potentially truly expansive while Mr Gove’s version hails from the nineteenth century. 

Children and families have disappeared from our education ministry and, I wonder, from its ministers’ thinking.

It’s not all bad of course.

The relentless focus on outstanding teaching and learning is essential even if the tone is all wrong from Ofsted: the last thing we need is Fear stalking staff rooms. 

Meanwhile the energy from the Department of Business Innovation and Skills offers some serious opportunities. The Commission exploring vocational pedagogy is exciting and in the autumn thee looks to be a serious attempt to understand more about the learning processes involved in apprenticeship.

Most of all I find myself constantly energized by the creativity and commitment of the many expansive school leaders and teachers with whom it is my privilege to work and play. Together I am convinced that we are beginning to demonstrate that restricted forms of education only fool test-setters and do little to create lifelong learners.