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

­
20th November
Bill Lucas
soft-skills

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 

tesblog

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

Resourceful and creative learners or PISA success or both?

When English children are compared unfavourably to those in Finland or parts of China by their PISA test scores (as they frequently are), there is always a temptation for people to suggest that teachers should change tack.  ‘We must focus on the basics of English and maths and stop being interested in this wider learning capability stuff’, is the cry from some.
But such polarizing sentiments are deeply unhelpful and ill-founded. Doing really well at maths and becoming a powerful learner are not mutually exclusive goals. We can and must achieve both. It was in an attempt to reconcile these ‘false opposites’ that Guy Claxton and I coined the expression ‘expansive education’. In our recent book Expansive Education: teaching learners for the real world, we explore the underpinning research for this view (it’s strong) and share examples from across the world of teachers who want outstanding results but not at any price. For primary schools wanting practical examples, Building Learning Power  is an excellent starting point.
There are three strong arguments to be made here. The first is based in research, the second is a moral argument and the third requires us to be principled pragmatists.

1. Heeding the evidence
‘For 20 years it has been known that students with more elaborate conceptions of learning perform better at public examinations.’  Specifically we know that certain pro-learning capabilities improve attainment. Two powerful examples are emotional self-management (persisting when the going gets tough) and the possession of a positive or ‘growth’ mindset  as Carol Dweck has termed it. Such a mindset would include self-belief, willingness to practise, learning from mistakes, and an inclination to collaborate. John Hattie  has specified very clearly those aspects of learning and teaching which best correlate with raising achievement. These include formative feedback such as assessment for learning, peer/reciprocal teaching, and learning to learn strategies.

2. Making the moral case
Schools, we believe, have a moral duty to prepare children for a lifetime of learning. Doing well on tests is important, but it is only a part of a bigger educational and societal project. The outcomes we desire from schools include communal virtues – honesty, trustworthiness, kindness, tolerance and empathy, the virtues of self-regulation – patience, self-discipline and the ability to tolerate frustration or disappointment. And then there are the epistemic or learning virtues, those that enable one to deal well with real-world challenges. These include determination, curiosity, creativity and collaboration. (We know that will power, for example, behaves exactly like a mental muscle that can be strengthened by exercise ). Teachers should be consciously, persistently and systematically cultivating the habits of mind that will serve children well, adding to the harmony, prosperity and creativity of society.
The good news from this moral argument is that the development of almost all of the kinds of the virtues we list will help to improve the PISA results. It’s not an ‘either/or’.

3. Being pragmatic
For some primary teachers it can come as shock to realise that it is, in any case, simply not possible just to ‘do the basics’, to concentrate on subject expertise alone. For whether you are teaching maths or English or history or science, you will also be shaping the way learners see themselves. Will children be acting dependently or resourcefully in maths? How will children view their drafts in English – embarrassed by their mistakes or comfortable with their story-in-progress? Will dispositions like empathy and rigorous analysis be cultivated in history, or will they be colouring in and getting ready to regurgitate? And will they be thinking like scientists or in a lab devoid of first-hand experimentation?
Even if we were to want to, we cannot choose between PISA-focus and genuine learning. For whatever curriculum we teach our values will be on show and learners will see which kinds of learning counts for us. That’s what I mean by principled pragmatism. We all need to provide an apprenticeship for children that produces both powerful learners and great test-takers!

Bill Lucas is the Director of the Centre for Real-World at the University of Winchester and the co-creator of the Expansive Education Network. Find out more at http://www.expansiveeducation.net.

This article appeared in the May 2014 edition of Teach Primary

Podcast: discussing CRL’s expansive approach to vocational pedagogy with the TES

Join the TES’ very own Sarah Simons as she talks vocational pedagogy with Professor Bill Lucas, Jayne Stigger and Dr Jean Kelly in yet another wonderful episode of the TES further education podcast.

http://www.tes.co.uk/teaching-resource/The-TES-Further-Education-Podcast-Episode-10-6396052