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

Guest post: Dr Ellen Spencer – Towards a universal understanding of soft skills?

It’s so important: employers recognise it; educators recognise it; parents recognise it. Yet it is shrouded in jargon and cliché. We have so many overlapping words for ‘it’: employability skills; soft skills; wider skills for learning; non-cognitive skills; performance virtues. Yet we don’t really have a language that we can use to converse in a meaningful way where understanding is truly shared.

While few would deny the vital nature of ‘soft skills’ (a loaded term if ever there was one) to employment, the phrase itself – when translated to the classroom – tends to be associated with ‘fluffy’ teaching; seen as the poor cousin of academic knowledge. The teaching of ‘it’ brings less esteem than the teaching of subjects. Maybe it is seen as the agenda of those ‘progressive educators’ who, rumour has it, want to remove subject knowledge from the curriculum and instead replace it with well-being and all things pupil-led.

This said, the last six months in politics has begun to lead to a re-think in some attitudes towards what is ‘core’ and what is ‘peripheral’ in learning. In a positive commentary on this movement of opinion, Fiona Millar in the Guardian notes Sir Anthony Seldon’s suggestion that we make a virtue out of ‘happiness’. This suggestion stems from serious issues like “unprecedented levels of stress and anxiety among pupils” and, of course, the impacts such concerns have on the capabilities of those same pupils once they head out into the wider world.

Various organisations promote ‘character education’ as part of the solution; an increasingly popular move to develop ethical, engaged citizens (The Character Education Partnership) democratic citizenship and civil society (The Center for Character and Citizenship) or human flourishing (The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues). But what is it that character education teaches?

For Richard Sennett, ‘character’ is clear. It is outward looking; not inward, like personality, “which concerns desires and sentiments which may fester within, witnessed by no one else”. Character, in the ‘old-school’ sense is

“the ethical value we place on our own desires and on our relations to others”. It “concerns the personal traits which we value in ourselves and for which we seek to be valued by others”.

It cannot, therefore, be instrumental. We don’t have character just to achieve some goal; we have character to be valued for having character.

By unfortunate irony, the very reason that our young people need character more than ever is to succeed in a modern world that has eroded society’s ability to instil character into individuals through the natural progression of their lives. Richard Sennett’s The Corrosion of Character is a remarkably insightful observation into this situation in which he states:

How do we decide what is of lasting value in ourselves in a society which is impatient, which focuses on the immediate moment? How can long-term goals be pursued in an economy devoted to the short term? How can mutual loyalties and commitments be sustained in institutions which are constantly breaking apart or continually being redesigned? These are the questions about character posed by the new, flexible capitalism. (p. 10)

To circumvent this issue, there is a growing trend to separate out character into ‘performance’ and ‘moral’. Sometimes the ‘moral’ is removed, lest it be seen to make value judgments of the religious kind, although studies across cultures reveal the universality of core ethical values (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). And also perhaps because, as Sennett observes: “the qualities of good work are not the qualities of good character” in the true sense of the word.

Thus, it is performance character – and there is a growing consensus on this – that is of particular interest to politicians, employers, and education researchers.

But just as non-cognitive and cognitive skills are hard to prize apart, judgement is required to sift through ‘performance’ and ‘moral’ personal characteristics. Integrity is an example. The following quote is attributed to businessman and philanthropist Warren Buffett, perhaps the 20th century’s most successful inventor:

I look for three qualities in hiring people. Integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if they don’t have the first then the last two will kill you, because if they don’t have integrity you want them dumb and lazy. 

Surely, if any characteristic would fit the label ‘moral’ or ‘virtue’, and yet also be of great significance for performance in the world of work, then integrity is it. It could be argued that it both “enables us to be our best ethical selves in relationships and in our roles as citizens” and also “to achieve… our highest potential in any performance context” to use the Character Education Partnership’s respective descriptions of ‘moral’ and ‘performance’ character.

In Ethics and Excellence: Cooperation and integrity in business (1992), Robert Soloman argues that capitalism as an institution cannot ultimately tolerate a model of business that ignores the traditional virtues of responsibility, community, and integrity. CEO Amy Rees Anderson gives entrepreneurs pause for thought with her statement that “success will come and go, but integrity is forever” in an article of the same title. Amy similarly champions ‘respect’ as a value absolutely critical for success and, again, would we call this a moral virtue, or a performance virtue?

The Character Education Partnership published a position paper laying out its view of education that recognises the importance of performance character (needed for best work) as well as moral character (needed for ethical behaviour) stating that:

While core ethical values remain foundational in a life of character, character education must also develop students’ performance values such as effort, diligence, and perseverance in order to promote academic learning, foster an ethic of excellence, and develop the skills needed to act upon ethical values.

The position paper acknowledges that the two elements are ‘aspects’ rather than distinct ‘parts’ of character. And because they form a conceptual framework they are, by nature, open to interpretation.

So what terminology should we use when debating the non-cognitive skills for employment? Is ‘values’ helpful? Character ‘virtues’ may be a useful phrase, for example, while ‘trait’ is perhaps too ‘fixed’ a characteristic. ‘Employability skills’ has a certain ring to it, although may easily be used to describe things that are not the things we are talking about.

Do we even need a shared language? The Confederation of British Industry, a big player in this debate would say Yes. Arguing that the new national curriculum’s focus on promoting spiritual, moral, cultural, mental, and physical development of pupils is not enough, their end of year report proposed that

We need a clear statement of outcomes which incorporates the behaviours and attitudes that the school system should develop in young people. We also need an accountability framework and inspection regime which incentivises schools to deliver these agreed outcomes. (p. 3)

The CBI uses language like ‘determined’, ‘optimistic’, and ’emotionally intelligent’ to describe the young people it wants our education system to cultivate. Are these universally desirable, or do different categories of user identify different non-cognitive skills? For example, could it be argued that private, public, and ‘third’ sector hold broadly different values, such that a common core of ‘skills’ does not exist? In Wider Skills for Learning Bill Lucas and Guy Claxton argued that the plethora of approaches to wider skills are frequently ‘wish lists’, betraying the underlying aspirations of their authors. Not only this; they are generally incoherent such that they would not stand up to psychometric scrutiny.

Needless to say, there is a whole array of classifications for soft-skills with complementary and overlapping labels. While we might concede that different groups of users may have varying rationale for using different labels, or for having different lists within those same labels, it is true that we can’t compare, or measure, if we don’t even try to find common ground.

In the realm of social science, are there any certainties? Well, soft skills are said to predict success (and to be in part responsible for it) later in life (Heckman and Kautz, 2012). Most notably, ‘conscientiousness’, which is tendency to be persevering and hardworking, stands out as the most predictive of the Big Five across many outcomes. These Five are a taxonomy of personality traits relatively well-accepted by psychologists: emotional stability, agreeableness, extraversion, conscientiousness, and openness.

As a trait, conscientiousness encompasses a number of factors: grit and self-control included. These two are the focus of Angela Duckworth, eminent psychologist, whose work examines these two traits that predict achievement. But the Education Endowment Foundation reportThe Impact of Non-Cognitive Skills on Outcomes for Young People’ concludes that although these both correlate strongly with outcomes, they may be more alike to stable personality traits than to malleable skills.

Ultimately, that report finds that there is no single non-cognitive skill that predicts long-term outcomes. Rather key skills are inter-related and need to be developed in combination with one another. Here, we return full circle to character. As Richard Sennett wrote:

Character is expressed by loyalty and mutual commitment, or through the pursuit of long-term goals, or by the practice of delayed gratification for the sake of a future end. (p. 10)

When mere creation of wish lists of desirable qualities leaves much to be desired perhaps it is, ultimately, character that we need. Or ‘excellence’; the approach Ron Berger takes to developing learners’ inner compass for success.

Lucas and Claxton end Wider Skills for Learning with the recommendation that

we are convinced that real progress in developing ways of cultivating the wider skills of learning and creativity will be hampered unless we insist on speaking and thinking in terms of dispositions and habits of mind, rather than merely of skills. (p. 31)

We, as a society must work out what dispositions, or ‘habits’, we value. And, maybe more importantly, work out why we value them. After all, is the term ‘performance virtue’ not rather a cynical one if we aim to develop it for instrumental means (how it can benefit me) rather than for its own sake (how I can benefit others)?  What we need are ‘employability habits’ that take character as their starting point.

The Centre for Real-World Learning’s research into character and employability for the City & Guilds Alliance – Learning to be employable – will be published later this year.

Additional references:

Sennett, R. (1998) The Corrosion of Character: The personal consequences of work in the new capitalism New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Peterson and Seligman (2004) Character Strengths and Virtues: A handbook and classification New York: American Psychological Association and Oxford University Press

Signs of Spring?

It’s been a long cold few months in England and the Summer term has started without Spring having really arrived. And, for many of the teachers I have been working with, that goes for the educational temperature too.

For the air is predictably full of arguments over what should or should not be in the National Curriculum, what will happen to EBacc, whether TechBacc will happen, and even some mischievous suggestions that teachers should work longer hours and have shorter holidays. Don’t get me wrong. There’s no reason why we should not take a good look at the amount of time that students spend learning. It’s just that most of the research shows that it is what learners do that matters and much less so how much time they spend doing it.

Which brings me to expansive learning and some signs that we are beginning to achieve critical mass in England and, increasingly, across the world.

eedNET’s expansion
In the last few months a number of significant organisations have joined the Expansive Education Network including Fieldwork Education, Teaching Leaders and SSAT. With the last of these, SSAT, Guy and I have teamed up with a number of other academics to help orchestrate a sector-led debate about how we can redesign schooling to make it more expansive. Already we are hearing from headteachers that this is the kind of direction they would like to go in. We have some emerging principles:

1. Schools have a broad in preparing learners for a lifetime of learning

2. There are a set of wider life and learning skills which need to be deliberately cultivated in the context of the curriculum and beyond

3. What learners believe about themselves matters and a ‘growth mindset’ is both a powerful motivator and a predictor of success

4. Parents and the wider community have a significant role to play in pupil’s learning alongside schools

5. When teachers actively continue their own learning and model this in their classrooms learners achieve more

6. Learning works well when it builds on pupils’ prior experiences, is authentic, has clear and stretching goals and is undertaken in an environment full of formative feedback with many opportunities for reflection

7. Learning requires opportunities to develop emotionally, socially and practically as well as intellectually, individually and with appropriate theoretical grounding and understanding

8. Learning is learnable and improves when learners have a set of metacognitive strategies which they are able to use confidently in a range of contexts.

What do you think?

Greater precision of definition
Last year the Australian Council for Educational Research, in conjunction with the Open University Press, commissioned us to write a book which we are calling Expansive Education: teaching learners for the real world. They asked us to scan the world for examples and we have just finished doing so. In the process we had the opportunity to stand back and reflect on how expansive education is different from a range of ‘progressive’ approaches and I offer a taste of what we have written here:

Expansive education is expansive in four senses.

First, it seeks to expand the goals of education. Traditionally, a school framed its success in terms of its exam results, the quantity and quality of its students’ university places, its ratings by independent assessors (such as Ofsted), and by its students’ achievements on the sports field and in the concert hall. How students fared after leaving—whether they had genuinely been prepared for the rigours of further study, vocational training and the informal challenges and demands of life—was little monitored and hence little valued. Expansive educators are happy to include these traditional ‘success criteria’, but insist on adding some more: the extent to which young people’s horizons have been broadened so that they have really been prepared to face the tests of life.

Secondly, ‘expansive’ means expanding young people’s capacity to deal with these tests. Whereas traditional educators tend to see young people’s capacity to think and learn as relatively fixed—they talk about students as if they were simply ‘bright’, average’ or ‘less able’—expansive educators focus on the extent to which our psychological capacities are themselves capable of being stretched and strengthened. What David Perkins calls ‘the emerging science of learnable intelligence’ has made it clear that a good part of people’s so-called intelligence is actually made up of mental habits that can be developed in positive ways. We know that willpower, for example, behaves exactly like a mental muscle that can be strengthened by exercise, and depleted through use. Likewise resilience, concentration, imagination and collaboration are all qualities of mind that can be coached and cultivated. This science gives licence to teachers to think of themselves as coaches of the capacities to think and learn.

Thirdly, we are expanding our compass beyond the school gates. Expansive education assumes that rich learning opportunities abound in young people’s other lives of music, sport and community and family activity. In 1987, Lauren Resnick drew attention to the growing evidence that knowledge acquired outside school can contribute to the development of young people in school—and vice versa. Schooling, Resnick reminds us, is very different from learning outside school.

Briefly, schooling focuses on the individual’s performance, whereas out-of-school mental work is often socially shared. Schooling aims to foster unaided thought, whereas mental work outside school usually involves cognitive tools. School cultivates symbolic thinking, whereas mental activity outside school engages directly with objects and situations. Finally, schooling aims to teach general skills and knowledge, whereas situation-specific competencies dominate outside.

To thrive in the real world young people need to experience an expanded palette of learning opportunities or it is unlikely that they will acquire the kinds of habits of mind they need to thrive. Expansive educators ensure that their pedagogical and instructional processes reflect such an expanded conception of learning.

And fourthly, expansive education has profound implications for the role of teachers. Just as a central clutch of desirable dispositions in young people involve experimenting, noticing, critical thinking, questioning, reflecting and adapting, so the same is true for teachers. Teachers who exhibit these capabilities produce better educational outcomes. John Hattie puts his finger on it most deftly in Visible learning: a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement:

The remarkable feature of the evidence is that the biggest effects on student learning occur when teachers become learners of their own teaching, and when students become their own teachers.

In the first half of the sentence, Hattie encapsulates precisely what expansive educators tend to do. They move beyond reflective practice to adopt a more scientific and rigorous mindset with respect to all of their teaching They become better observers of their own effects on students, and more interested in undertaking, publishing and sharing systematic action research with other colleagues. Thus, expansive education requires expansive and enquiring teachers.

Does this help? Do let us know.