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The Power of Relationships⤴

from @ EduBlether

You know those children that take your breath away? The children who keep you up at night with thoughts of exactly what else you can do to help them. The sort of children who require constant curiosity to unpick and unravel their unpredictable behaviour. The children who no matter what you do, and what you try, they refuse to conform to a system that is not designed for them. I’ve been thinking a lot about those children recently.

Every teacher has worked with these children. Every person working in education has a story of a child that they can’t forget after many years have passed. We have all felt the frustration of believing we are failing a child because, despite all the effort and energy, we still haven’t cracked the puzzle of the individual and unique range of needs this child has.

This post is a celebration and recognition of those children first and foremost, but also of the team of dedicated and incredibly resilient professionals who have worked tirelessly to help these children. In the time I have been teaching and working in schools I have had the absolute pleasure and joy of working with so many children whom, for whatever reason, do not fit the traditional mould of schooling. So many children who have required a creative, flexible and alternative approach to achieve progress, success and flourishment. And the successes I have observed are incredible. Heartwarming. Life-changing.

The key to every single element of success I have ever experienced with children facing challenges like this, is relationships. Strong, meaningful and at times irrational relationships. The teachers and support staff and other professionals I have worked with who have invested heavily in these relationships have made the difference. Tireless in the pursuit of helping that particular child feel more safe, more valued, more loved.

Relationships are the keystone in the bridge between these children and them feeling like they belong. Professionals who are dedicated above all else to making the child in front of them feel loved and cared for. Someone who is willing to look past the rigid and inflexible pursuit of conformity and to see that child for who they truly are; a fellow human with their own outlook and perspective of the world. From my experience, with the gifted and incredibly talented staff I have had the pleasure of working with, it is this that makes the difference beyond anything else. When you boil it down, taking away all the strategies, interventions and different approaches, what you are left with is an adult who cares enough to care.

That adult who believes in relationships is not weak. They are not simply allowing the child to do what they like. No. Because they care so much, they are relentless in their approach to helping that child do better. They are dogged in their attempts to make that child succeed despite the challenges they face. I get frustrated when I hear a focus on relationships described as a “soft” approach. It’s the hardest thing I have ever been a part of. It would be easy to let a child do what they like and not hold them to account. It would be soft to give out high fives when being met with flying chairs.

But any teacher who has ever invested in relationships knows that in order to build meaningful relationships with children like this, the key lies in unwaveringly high expectations. Difficult conversations, consequences and accountability are a hugely significant aspect of relational practice. But these are far more powerful If that child knows that you care about them, and are holding them to account because you care too much about them to allow them to fail. These practices have much more impact if they run alongside a huge level of support, where the professionals change their practices and adapt approaches to ensure that they can better meet the needs of the child they are working with. High levels of support crossing over with high levels of expectation and challenge is where you build strong and purposeful relationships that lead to a child facing significant challenges beginning to realise their potential.
As well as the child beginning to flourish I believe that relationships also come with a significant reward for the professionals involved. I say this from personal experience. My understanding of fairness and respect has been altered by my interactions with these children. I am more aware of the impact of my decisions and the unequal amount of power I have as the professional adult in these relationships. I have a better awareness of the lived experience of children who have faced unimaginable challenges, and this has fuelled a passionate desire to create a more inclusive and understanding school and education system for them. I have laughed, cried and created memories I will cherish forever with these children. In short, my life has been changed for the better by the relationships I have formed with these truly amazing, incredible and breathtaking children, and by working alongside some truly inspirational colleagues in the pursuit of something great.

Behaviour and the purpose of education⤴

from @ EduBlether

I recently wrote a blog post outlining some of my thoughts on behaviour. The post was emphatically contested by several people on Twitter. This follow up post is by no means an apology, or a way for me to back-track on the comments made. I remain steadfast in my belief and perspective outlined in the original post. However, there are elements where I feel I may have been unclear and certainly there were aspects that were misunderstood. I was hopeful that in writing the original post, I would stimulate interest, debate and discussion. It clearly did do this, but I would like to go over some of the key issues raised to be able to further my own thinking in this area and continue the discussion.

The thing that was abundantly clear from many of the comments was that there are diametrically opposed positions being argued over. Which can feel redundant at times. I feel that the polarity that exists in education, and particularly on social media, is problematic. I do not mean to fuel this in anyway, but I think it is important to understand that there are certain fundamentally conflicting views at play here, and it is important to interrogate your position in this debate in an informed way. As I said in my original post, I think that it is important to determine what you see as the fundamental purpose of school and education. What is it all really for? I think your answer to the question of purpose has a hugely significant impact on your approach towards behaviour.

For me, I believe that one of the fundamental goals of education should be to challenge learners to see the (social) world differently, to be critical of the status quo and to try consciously work towards a world that is inclusive and fair for everyone. This is a view that draws on the thoughts and ideas from Critical Pedagogy, Progressive education, and Transformative Education, and has been heavily influenced by writers such as Gramsci, Freire, Giroux, Biesta, Dewey and more. Through this critical lens, those committed to this type of approach:

  • “Acknowledge and connect with learners’ personal and emotional experience, rather than neglecting the learning potential that lies in these experiences;
  • Engage these experiences through dialogue, which is a form of social interaction that integrates different perspectives, including affective knowledge (emotion/feeling) and experiential knowledge. Dialogue is differentiated from discussion, which can tend to put aside the affective and experiential.”


If you read the statements above with behaviour in mind, this gives you a totally different perspective and subsequent set of pedagogical practices to utilise than if you hold a different belief about the purpose of education. On reflection it appears that this is why there was such disagreement, because it seems from the comments I received, that I have an entirely different view of the purpose of education to many of those who disagreed with what I wrote. This is the salient point. Everything else is secondary.

As mentioned in the original post, this is a hugely complex and challenging issue. Of course it is. Because, just as I approach the conversation with my own unique set of beliefs and lived experiences. So do you. However, part of the anger and frustration around this debate comes from the fact that behaviour can be such an emotional and highly impactful aspect of school life. I recognise the emotion, frustration and anger. I work as a Depute Head in a large Primary School. I have a very good understanding of dysregulated behaviour and the impact this can have on school life. I do not want to appear flippant or removed from the issue, or to belittle the very real concerns of my colleagues across the profession. This is what I do every day in my job. I think there is agreement that things are not perfect and there is work to be done in the system to make things better. I also know that everyone, not matter what their perspective or answer to the question on the purposes of education, believes they are doing the best they can to support the children ad young people in their care. However I think it is naïve and reductionist to say that violent, aggressive or even low level disruptions exists and persists because of a restorative practice approach being used in a school. To ignore the wider societal inequality in this debate is theoretically flawed and morally wrong in my opinion. Schools do not exist in isolation, and any impact or effect must be read and understood in the entirety of the context.

My views here have been influenced by the ‘private troubles and public issues’ distinction put forward by Mills (1959) where ‘troubles’ are concerned with a person’s individual character and experience, and ‘issues’ are to do with matters that transcend the individual and the local environment of their life. The following example illustrates the distinction well:

When, in a city of 100,000, only one man is unemployed, that is his personal trouble, and for its relief we properly look to the character of the man, his skills, and his immediate opportunities. But when in a nation of 50 million employees, 15 million men are unemployed, that is an issue, and we may not hope to find its solution within the range of opportunities open to any one individual.

(Mills, ibid: 9)

To individualise problems around behaviour, we risk viewing behaviour as a ‘personal trouble’. However, the fact that so many schools can speak to similarities in terms of the struggles they face around behaviour strikes me as more of a ‘public issue’. When analysed further, and you see the trend of children from low socio-economic status, or with additional support needs being excluded at a rate disproportionately higher than their counterparts across the country, there is even more evidence of a ‘public issue’ that requires resolution at a system-wide level, not an individual one.

I was also criticised for trying to monopolise practices that lead to social justice. For me to lay sole claim to equitable practice or the pursuit of inclusion and social justice is wrong and I would never attempt to do this. I am yet to come across anyone working in education that would say they would willingly perpetuate in-justice, or that they are not affected by the inequality that is ever-present in the education system and wider society. It is clear that reading through Tom Bennett’s book – ‘Running the Room’, that there is a clear belief that the approaches he suggests will have a significant impact on the children who are most vulnerable in society. It was clear in the follow up comments to my original post that people believe the way to challenge this inequality is to give the children the skills to behave through high levels of adult control, direct instruction and clear consequences and boundaries in place for any infractions. The argument goes that to tackle inequality, we are duty-bound to teach the children who are not provided with correct models of behaviour, exactly how to behave. This will inevitably lead to more equality.

The approach to tackling inequality promoted here, seems to be an individualised one though that addresses the problem as if it were a ‘personal trouble’, to engage with Mills (1959) again. i.e. helping individual children overcome deficiencies of their character or immediate local environment to gain key skills, attributes and knowledge required to enter the labour market and perhaps advance socially and economically.

My argument here is that to view this as a problem of the individual, rather than a systemic issue, it does nothing to move society forward. We simply have a practice which leads to success for some, but nonetheless perpetuates the status quo which is inherently unequal and unjust. Children are given the skills to advance individually, but only into a system that has a large degree of inequality.

A lot of the comments I received were around the fact that people believe the approach I advocate for (a strongly relational and restorative approach) is impractical, people claim it simply does not work in a real school. “Utopian sentimentalism” was the great phrase Tom Bennett used, which I think was meant to be used pejoratively, but may well be the title of any book I ever write. This speaks to the question raised at the start about your position on the purpose of education. If you favour a neoliberal, business-like efficiency model of education which is built on the transactional value of learning experiences and promotes a replicable model for ensuring children learn more content and does not value highly the lived personal and emotional experiences of children, then I agree that a restorative approach probably is impractical.

Biesta’s excellent article Why “What works” wont work: Evidence-based practice and the democratic deficit in educational research’ (Biesta, 2007) has had a significant impact on my thinking here. Biesta argues that evidence-based practice, or the over-reliance on finding ‘what works’ or what is practical restricts the scope of decision making in education to questions about efficiency and effectiveness. He argues that this also restricts the opportunities for teachers to participate in educational decision making. A focus on efficiency and research-based practice serves to deny teachers the right to make values-based judgements on the educational desirability of any action or strategy and consequently removes their right not to act according to evidence about “what works”. The problem here is that discussions around practicality or finding strategies that research suggests ‘works’, is that it fails to give sufficient weight to the moral and values-based issues inherent in all educational decision making. Why is practicality and efficiency valued above all else?

I think behaviour is far more complex than simply finding a range of strategies that ‘work’. I think this suggest that education and any approach to behaviour is linear, with a simple and observable input-output model. There is no simple solution towards achieving progress with behaviour. It is for this reason that I refuse to be drawn into an argument that poses certain strategies against others to determine which is better. Some strategies will work for some children some of the time. It will be a complex blend of strategies for some, and a more straight-forward approach for others. But what we cannot lose sight of, is the bigger question around purpose. Why are we doing what we are doing?

The approach I am advocating for here is highly personalised, and unique to individual children. It is about connecting with children’s personal emotional experience and being responsive to a range of needs. This is not a cookie-cutter version of simply ‘managing’ behaviour that can be replicated with ease from school to school. It is about growing and developing genuine human connection and meaningful relationships built on tolerance, mutual respect, unconditional and relentless positive regard for the children we teach. This process will be different for every teacher and child working with each other, in every school up and down the country. Yes, there are strategies and approaches consistent in all schools committed to restorative practice, but at the foundation of it all is practice that is built on relationships before anything and everything else. This is a cultural approach, a statement of values, a community working together – not a shortcut to an efficient model to fix things in the short term. Perhaps some of the criticism restorative practice receives is from teachers reflecting on their own experience of restorative practice, where children descend into chaos, are relentlessly disrespectful and start acting like they own the place. The belief is that the children take advantage of the lack of punishment and consequences which ultimately leads to serious disruptions in learning and puts people’s safety at risk. This is not what restorative practice looks like in my experience. But just as those who advocate for stronger boundaries and more consistent consequences feel frustrated when they are characterised as punishment-driven, joyless, cruel, Dickensian teachers, so to are those who are faced with the above caricature of restorative practice.

R. F. Mackenzie, a key figure and radical voice in promoting a progressive model for Scottish Education said:

“I believe that human nature is generally good, that human beings react generously to conditions of freedom and that therefore teachers doing experimental work in education would be wise not to try and mould children into some shape but to help them grow into freedom”

(Mackenzie, 1965:9)

There is a certain amount freedom that is afforded to child through restorative practice. Freedom to find out who they are and how they want to interact with the world and those around them. I am not suggesting for a second that children do not need guided or nurtured through this process. A high level of support is required to help children grow into this freedom.

I find McCold and Wachtel’s (2003) notion of the Social Discipline Window helpful to explain more fully the intent behind restorative practice and what this ‘freedom’ looks like. The axes of control and support give us 4 quadrants to describe approaches to behaviour.

The idea here is that with a high degree of support, along with a high degree of control/challenge, we can work with children to achieve better behaviour choices and actions.

If we have a high degree of control, with low levels of support, we are in the quadrant where our choices around behaviour, as the adults in the building, are simply given ‘to’ the children, without any flexibility or opportunity for challenge. This quadrant is punitive, and in my opinion, less aligned with my aims for education as laid out previously.

I know that some of the criticism around this approach is often directed at practice that would actually fall in the bottom two quadrants, described as neglectful or permissive. This is not the approach I argue for, and I think it sometimes leads to the misconceptions around what restorative practice involves.

By working predominantly in the ‘To’ quadrant, by forcing children to comply to a system with very low tolerance or flexibility for any behaviour that does not follow the rules, I believe we are not recognising children as humans in their own right, with their own perspective of justice and what is fair. We are simply reproducing the set of societal and cultural norms that have been agreed upon by those in positions of relative power, and have led to a large degree of inequality and a system in need of change. For me, this approach to behaviour does not model the democratic, transformational, or critical potential of education that I hold dear. It does not allow children to find their voice and learn about making morally or ethically based decisions by themselves. If children are simply ‘behaving’ for fear of the punishment, my view (through a wide range of experiences and observations) is that when the fear of the punishment is no longer there, the undesirable behaviour can continue.

I have argued repeatedly in this post for approaches to behaviour to be discussed in a way that pays cognisance to the question of the purpose of education. What you believe children are at school for, and what experiences you believe are educationally desirable, will have a huge impact on what you think is the correct way to approach behaviour in schools. I have acknowledged the tendency in this debate for toxic, unhelpful polarity to take hold, and while I disagree with the notion of perpetuating false dichotomies in educational debate, I do believe it is important to question your beliefs, and align these with writers, theorists and practitioners who argue for a similar thing that you believe in. By not doing this, you risk working in a system and adopting a range of strategies that perpetuate injustice and do not lead to meaningful change for those who need it most. As the adage goes; If you don’t stand for something, you risk falling for anything.


Biesta, G. (2007). Why “What Works” Won’t Work: Evidence-Based Practice and the Democratic Deficit in Educational Research. Educational Theory, 57, 1-22.

Mackenzie, R.F. (1965), Escape from the classroom. London: Collins

McCold, P. & Wachtel, T. (2003). In pursuit of paradigm: a theory of restorative justice. Restorative  Practices 

Mills, C. Wright (1959) The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.

Why ’good behaviour’ can lead to inequity⤴

from @ EduBlether

The debate around behaviour in schools is perennial, and just as we said in the podcast episode on behaviour, we will not have time to fully discuss all of the various elements of the debate in this post. What I have to say about behaviour in schools could make up a whole book on its on, so I will continue to post on the subject in the coming weeks. I feel that returning to the discussion to revise and review viewpoints will be worthwhile. My views on this change regularly depending on my experiences in school and the new challenges I am faced with in my leadership role in a school.

For the purpose of clarity, I want to say up front that I am an advocate of restorative practice and a collection of approaches towards ‘behaviour’ that allow children’s dignity to remain intact and that has relationships front and centre. I openly criticise overly punitive, zero-tolerance measures to ‘manage’ behaviour that prioritise an inflexible tariff of consequences. This is down to what I see as the purpose of education (which I recently wrote about here). I believe that Education is a democratising and liberating force that can help children to change themselves and the world rather than conform and reproduce status quo. This is important in this discussion and I urge you to reflect on your answer to the purpose question as it will impact on your views on behaviour.

From my experience, discussion with colleagues, reading current literature and analysis of policy, I would say that in Scotland there is a tangible shift towards nurturing, child-centred, rights-respecting approaches towards behaviour that align closely with my own view. Inclusive policies give me license to pursue the restorative approach I discuss above. The work of popular edu-authors and speakers like Paul Dix (When the adults change everything changes) and the awareness of trauma informed practice and adverse childhood experiences in Scotland has changed the narrative. Most schools no longer remove golden time from children or place their name on the grey cloud to ridicule and embarrass them into behaving better. Behaviourist approaches now seem like out-dated practice that is almost universally lambasted, certainly it is in my immediate professional circles.

The principles of nurture are also well understood in schools across Scotland, the main principle brought into this discussion is often “all behaviour is communication”. Educators seek to understand rather than be understood when it comes to behaviour (or at least there is an awareness of the importance of this). I have first-hand experience of some exceptional practice in this area. Robust packages of support, and huge levels of effort, determination and collaboration have gone into changing the lives of children who would, in a more traditional approach to behaviour, have been excluded and/or done serious harm to themselves and others. With an approach centred on forgiveness, understanding and an educative approach to behaviour – I know that a long term impact can be made. I have seen this work, and the implications are literally life changing.

The ‘problem’ with this approach is that it is hard. VERY hard. It takes a large degree of understanding and professionalism. This is not an approach that is ‘efficient’. There is no linear route to more regulated, consistently calm behaviour. It is a mix of complex, nuanced and fluid approaches that change daily and vary in terms of success. There will be a lot that does not work and certainty of any kind (in terms of children’s behaviour) is almost non-existent. This is not a post of my top 10 approaches to managing behaviour or the silver bullet that will cure all behaviour issues. From my experience there is no list or single strategy that works. This uncertainty and unpredictability inevitably has an impact on other school priorities. It is therefore paramount to view this as values-led practice, as mentioned when questioning your purpose. It is necessary, when approaching behaviour this way, to interrogate what your values are as a school. What do you value above all else? Do you value things like; acceptance, forgiveness, understanding of differences and inclusion? If so then it is important to be upfront and explicit about this. Celebrate your intent. Shout it from the rooftops. I find having a clear rationale for why you are adopting a certain approach, makes it easier when times get tough. Use it as a mantra to repeat to yourself when you find yourself wanting to resort to the path of least resistance. Shouting at a child, or forcing them to apologise may make you feel better in the moment, it may even feel like the ‘right’ thing to do, but does it really meet the longer-term values that you hold dear? Values are what keep me motivated, and keep me coming back every day to continue to try to make a difference. I believe that schools should be judged by how they treat the most vulnerable learners in the community. How those who are facing adversity, in any shape or form, are supported to overcome this. Universal and unquestioned compliance and conformity is not something I aim for in education. These statements express my values to a degree and are hugely significant when interrogating my approach towards behaviour.

Another reason this approach is hard though is because it appears to favour or prioritise the children who are facing barriers at the expense of those who are not. There are children who ‘behave’ as expected every day, without prompt or correction. “It’s not fair on everyone else” is a completely natural reaction, and one that I have wrestled with myself. To a certain extent I agree. Children who are disrupting the learning of many through their behaviour are illustrating a situation that is unfair. But, when I reflect on this, my sense of injustice comes from the inequality inherent in the system, not from the behaviour of individual children. I find it helpful to adopt a social model of analysis here rather than a medical model. The social model focuses on the environment and all contributing factors to a child’s behaviour, looking for alternative approaches that involve many variable factors. The medical model looks to problematise the individual, isolating the concerns to the child – removing them from external influences. For me nothing in education exists in isolation.

If we accept a system that is engineered towards comparing children, heavily focussed on qualification and progress in learning, where efficiency is valued highly while at the same time focussing on the actions of individuals, then disruptions to this will be seen as unfair. But how ‘fair’ is the system to begin with? Quite often, what we value as ‘good behaviour’ are the behaviours of well-off, middle-class, neurotypical children who have not experienced trauma or adversity. By this I mean, sitting quietly, listening, taking turns, resolving conflict with words, being polite etc. In this sense, schools operate to reinforce these societal norms as preferred behaviours. But whose cultural norms are they? Who sets the tone for these being ‘good behaviours’? In our current school system, If you behave this way, you will succeed at school, if not then you are in need of correction, and statistically are more likely to fail – by almost every proxy of success in our current system. These behaviours are preferable because they are beneficial for a very particular type of education. What happens when the environment and expected behaviours change? For example, how many people have witnessed a child’s behaviour completely change (in a positive way) when on a residential experience for example?

My issue here is that our education system as a whole perpetuates a system of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. If tolerance, acceptance and flexibility are not built into the system, and we have a narrow view of what ‘good behaviour’ looks like, then there are always going to be children who fail. My point in this post is that instead of trying to achieve conformity through force, which we know is simply out of reach for some children, that we should try to redesign the system to better suit the needs of those children finding it hard. Ian Gilbert, in the fantastic book ‘Working Class’, reflects on Paulo Freire’s work, in a way that is quite significant in this discussion.

“Your time is better spent not fighting me to change me but fighting to change the conditions in which a ‘you’ and a ‘me’ arose and which continue to perpetuate such a division”.

This is why I am proud of the work I have been a part of in my career which prioritises system change within a school in favour of children who can’t, for various reasons, succeed in the more traditional approach towards behaviour. By changing a system to be more inclusive and which respects every child’s rights and access to education I feel that we are challenging the inequality we see throughout society, and that we are contributing to a more socially just culture and community.

If all behaviour is communication, then that applies to the adults in the system too. What are you communicating through your behaviour as an adult when you are helping children learn how to behave? What are you communicating about your values and your approach to tackling inequality? What do your actions communicate about your beliefs and what you hold dear?

This debate is highly contentious and emotional. Your personal beliefs around this will be impacted on by so many elements of your life (your politics, your own experiences, your beliefs on the purpose of education and many more) meaning that there is going to be disagreement with what I have discussed here. I encourage this. I hope that this provokes discussion and debate. Ultimately though, I believe that as an education system we need to openly discuss this from a values based perspective because it has a profound impact on the lives of the children and young people we serve.

The Purposes of Education⤴

from @ EduBlether

I recently listened to the brilliant audiobook “The Purposes of Education: A conversation between John Hattie and Steen Nepper Larsen” and I cannot recommend it highly enough. The book wrestles with the question of the purpose of education through two relatively distinct and opposing lenses. Hattie’s visible learning paradigm, with a focus on empirical data on the one hand, and Steen Nepper Larsen’s educational philosophy on the other. I think I was drawn to this book because of the ongoing tensions and apparent dichotomies I face every day in my job as a teacher and leader. I observe, on a daily basis, the impact of these competing philosophies. The ruthless efficiency put forward by empirical data claiming to provide the next best thing in education is ever-present in schools, alongside the slow, nuanced and abstract concepts of the pursuit of equality, social justice, flourishment and the development of democracy.

The book was challenging on various levels. Firstly, it was meant to read as a dialogue between two highly regarded educational contributors…however this didn’t really work as an audiobook and I got confused who was saying what. The real challenge however came from me confronting and interrogating what I believe to be the purpose of education, beyond simply a few left-leaning , progressive yet abstract phrases about democracy. Determining what you believe to be the purpose of education is a hugely political, personal and consequently provocative pursuit.

The politics of this question is unavoidable in my opinion. The political element comes down to what you value in society and democracy. There is a very clear trend towards neoliberal policies and practices in education at present. Neo-liberalism is concerned with business-like efficiency, accountability and continuous (measurable) improvements. From this lens, education is seen in economic terms. The financial investment in education needs a sizeable return, not least because a country in modern politics is measured by how educated their population is. How do we measure how educated someone is? By prioritising the assessment procedures which give us a reliable, comparable result that we can easily track progress against. However, there are those who believe that this neoliberal/efficiency model has resulted in us valuing that which can be measured, more than education itself. It is from this perspective that we get the argument that the purpose of education is primarily to gain qualifications and to be ready for work.

The book ‘Purposes of Education’ makes repeated reference to Gert Biesta’s concept of ‘learnification’ here. Biesta argues that in modern educational discourse there has been a shift in language to focus disproportionately on ‘learning’ or ‘learners’. Biesta believes that this language falls short to accurately describe education. His point is that reframing the educational discourse onto the individual removes the complexity of the process and creates an empty individualistic ‘process-speak’. Ultimately in education, students learn something, from someone, for a specific purpose. The ‘learnification’ of language cannot fully capture this as it does not speak to content, direction or relationships. Also, if this becomes the only language available, the criticism from Biesta is that teachers become purely process managers, rather than integral parts of the learning relationship. If we also subscribe too heavily to the language of ‘learnification’, then it limits our power to truly question the complexities inherent in education. Biesta has observed that ‘if we fail to engage with the question of good education head-on – there is a real risk that data, statistics and league tables will do the decision-making for us’.

So what are the alternatives? What is the purpose of education if not to ensure children simply ‘learn’ or to achieve qualifications and start working. What are we missing out on?

It is also useful to look to more of Biesta’s work here. Biesta also argues that education is for qualification, subjectification and socialisation. The qualification function of education is one we are all too familiar with. Education for the purpose of doing something; gaining exam results, passing tests, readiness for the workplace etc. Socialisation refers to the many ways that education makes us become part of a particular social domain and allows us to learn the customs and ways of society. Subjectification refers to the process quite opposite to socialisation. Subjectification is the process of becoming an individual, learning who you are and to think independently. For Biesta, we have to be mindful of the balance between all three pursuits of education.

I would argue that all 3 of the above purposes of education are reflected in the Four Capacities in Scottish education; Responsible Citizens, Effective Contributors, Successful Learners and Confident Individuals. However, my question would be, do we have the balance right between all three areas that Biesta puts forward? I think that we have a huge focus in Primary education on Socialisation and Subjectification. However, as a whole, the education system is disproportionately skewed towards qualification. A balance that needs questioned when we are interrogating the question of the purpose of education. Overemphasising qualification, high stakes assessments and measurable outcomes of education subsequently changes the discussion around the pedagogic practices involved. I believe this forces a pedagogical discussion which over-emphasises methods, strategies and teacher-pupil interaction which sees improving attainment as the main proxy for success.

For me, the over-emphasis on qualification, and the efficiency model favoured currently is problematic. As Nixon (2009 : 195) argues:

‘it is not just a different way of talking about the same thing. It radically alters what we are talking about. It constitutes a new way of thinking about teaching and learning…it effects how we teach…’

Another alternative political view to the business-like, neoliberal model discussed above comes from the perspective of Critical Pedagogy. Here, education is a tool to dismantle the status-quo and not reinforce it. Education is a liberating force that builds democracy and encourages critical thought and the ability to change the world. From this perspective, which most closely aligns with my own, education should challenge inequality and the dominant uneven power relationships. It should prepare children to imagine a world that could be, rather than encouraging conformity with the world that is. For Paulo Freire, education does not exist in and of itself, but it exists to ensure that things change. In this view, children learn to be critically engaged in order to facilitate the transformation of the world they are in.

But of course, your view on this is inherently personal, hence the philosophical lens taken by Steen Nepper Larsen in the book. Discussing how you arrive at your own personal political standing is beyond the scope of this post. It is a complex mixture of various socialising agents; friends, family, social background, race, gender, class, education…this list could go on (perhaps a good blog post for later?)…My point however, is that where you stand on the political spectrum of the debate on the purpose of education will be an acutely personal decision.

Therein lies the provocative part. Education is a national policy, and at some point this policy has to be put into practice. When creating education policy and a national curriculum there is inevitably, intertwined within, the answer to the question of the purpose of education. This could be explicit (positive destinations, raising attainment, developing the young workforce) or more abstract and nuanced (successful learners, effective contributors etc.). This is contested, provocative and a site of struggle because of everything I have discussed above. The question of purpose cannot ever be apolitical or ahistorical. There is always bias at play, dominant perspectives reflected and political agendas enforced. How can everyone working in education reach a universal agreement on the complexity involved in the question of the purpose of education? What would universal agreement mean? Can you split priorities on something so fundamental? Is it feasible to assume that the answer to the purpose of education can be answered by multiple competing perspectives in the same system?

These are all questions that everyone in education should be asking themselves in my opinion. Or at least be mindful that any decision, even the decision to not ask the question, becomes political. The struggle will never go away. The balance of competing agendas and multiple perspectives is an inevitability in a mature and complex education system. However without interrogating your answers to these questions, you risk working for a system, with priorities and perspectives that do not align with your answer to the fundamental question of ‘What is it all really about?’. It may seem like navel-gazing, academic thought or pointless rhetoric without practical gain. But without analysing your purpose, you risk being purpose-less and in turn open to any shiny new initiative or approach that comes your way, slowly degrading the very reason you got into this job leaving you in a state of being unfulfilled, gradually grinding away your power, autonomy and agency (dramatic finish eh?) So, I urge you, take the power back, ask yourself the question:

What do you think the purpose of education is?

Knowledge-rich curriculum⤴

from @ EduBlether

‘Knowledge Rich Curriculum’ and direct modes of instruction are a bit of a fashionable trend in education at the moment. A range of books, podcasts and blog posts wax-lyrical about the benefits of knowledge and more ‘traditional’ pedagogical approaches in the classroom. A central and hugely popular text in this argument is the highly provocatively titled article “Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching”. The place for knowledge and direct instruction is also argued for emphatically in Daisy Christodoulou’s “7 Myths about Education”, a hugely influential and popular book. There are several other texts that argue similar points, a helpful summary has been put together by Tom Sherrington on his great blog, the themes central to the arguments from many of the contributing authors are that there is a more effective way of teaching than we are currently adopting in our more progressive, liberal, left-leaning, social-justice obsessed, child-centred educational landscape currently. In-fact, the division of what side of this debate you support often comes down to what side of the political spectrum you find your support lying also. This “more efficient” (note my passive aggressive speech marks) approach which focuses on direct instruction and knowledge will lead to better learning, it will reduce the attainment gap and will improve reading and writing results at the same time (all the “evidence” says so, therefore it must be right). The arguments are persuasive and very difficult to argue with. Try arguing against raising attainment in a more robust and efficient way that is easy to measure. However, that’s what I intend to do. I want to look closely at the claims and argue that we have to be careful accepting these claims without interrogating what we see to be the purpose of education.

I subscribe to a belief about education that it is a liberating and democratising endeavour. The purpose of education for me should be to allow children to flourish as human beings, to realise their power to change the world, not simply become skilled at remembering the way the world has always been. As an educator I want to challenge the uneven power hierarchy that exists in education and chip away at status quo and all the social ills that exist in society today. So engaging in a pedagogical and curricular approach that appears to remove freedom or power from children is something I will avoid. However, the arguments are so alluring and persuasive that it is challenging the very foundational beliefs I hold dear. In fact, it is the arguments that are put forward which are seemingly in favour of these beliefs that are challenging me most. I am struggling to see how it adds up. I will now outline some of the most persuasive arguments put forward for a knowledge rich curriculum and direct instruction. Please forgive the simplification and reductionism, I urge you to explore the research and writing for yourself. I want to write in broad general terms here first, before discussing my reservations and concerns in more depth.

The Importance of knowledge in the development of literacy is often cited as a key reason for a focus in knowledge rich curriculum approaches. A famous study by Recht and Leslie (1988) argued that children who read at a lower level but understand more about the content of the text they are reading can show greater comprehension than readers of a higher level with no understanding. The argument is clear, the more you know about a text, the easier it will be to read. They put forward that specific knowledge of the content helps more than a focus on transferable ‘reading skills’ like summarisation or finding the main idea. It is often this instrumental approach to reading that I have had experience with. Knowledge of a reading skill rather than content knowledge is how reading is taught in schools in my experience. This study has had a significant impact on advocates of a knowledge rich curriculum.
Continuing on this line of debate, it is often argued by knowledge-rich advocates that the best way to improve vocabulary of children is to increase knowledge through direct instruction. In the case of vocabulary development, the ‘Matthew Effect’ is often referred to. This biblical reference can basically be summed up as “the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer”. In educational terms, the argument for knowledge-rich curriculum here is that children who are facing financial hardship do not have exposure to as wide a range of knowledge and vocabulary as those children from more affluent homes. Therefore, school should be the great leveller, where all children have access to the best that has ever been said and written. Knowledge of vocabulary belongs to everyone, and the less focus placed on knowledge and vocabulary acquisition in schools, the greater the gap between the wealthiest and poorest. See what I mean? Who can argue with this?

So, what is the alternative, what are we doing in Scottish education currently that means we are not giving a knowledge-rich curriculum and consequently enhancing the Matthew Effect (as above) in increasing inequity. Nobody can argue that there is not an attainment gap in Scottish Education, it is one of the most significant areas of discussion in policy currently. The curriculum for excellence focuses more on outcomes than input – by this I mean we have more regulation of what children should be able to do at the end of a series of learning experiences and practicing of skills, than we do on the input – the ‘what’ children should be learning.

Mark Priestly writes about how the curriculum in Scotland is an intended rather than an implemented curriculum. The curriculum in Scotland was designed to be child centred, experiential, led by teachers who understand the needs of the community. This flies in the face of a knowledge rich curriculum that is teacher proof – a set of facts, dates and abstract knowledge to be delivered, a technicians job rather than a job for a professional. This view of curriculum development was that teachers, with their vast local knowledge and understanding of the children and the community they serve should be best placed to create the relevant curriculum. However, Knowledge still plays an important part in the curriculum. For example, we still use the disciplines (Literacy, Maths and Numeracy, Science, Religion etc.) to organise the curriculum. There are also multiple reference to ‘knowledge’ in key areas of policy documents. The difference is, that the specific knowledge to be taught has not been prescribed in the curriculum documents. This is why CFE and other skills based curricula are not seen as a knowledge rich curriculum, but has been described as technical-instrumentalist by Moore and Young, who see it as a sinister shift of focus to accountability and developing ‘skilled workers’. It has also been criticised as underplaying the complex relationship between knowledge and skills. Can generic skills even be developed free of contextual knowledge?

Part of my problem with knowledge rich curriculum is that is linked to assessable outcomes, it is something to be ‘delivered’, a teacher proof endeavour that pays little cognisance to the complex range of social variables that inevitably make up the nuanced procedure of translating policy to practice, which teachers do every day up and down the country. The curriculum for excellence is not concerned with micro-managing the input level of the curriculum, the autonomy for this is with teachers and schools. Teachers do not have the time and rely on recreating units of learning from previous years or finding what is easily accessible online. This is why CfE has been dubbed an ‘intended but not implemented’ curriculum. It may be utopian, but the curriculum we have should allow us to genuinely meet the children where they are, fully exploring their interests and passions and allowing them the time and freedom to interact with competing knowledge bases to better understand the world around them and their place in it. It feels through discussion with other colleagues, reading stories on social media and reflecting on my own experience that this is not common practice every day in Scotland.

This presents another reason for the appeal of knowledge rich curriculum in my eyes. Because in Scotland we have a curriculum that focuses on skills and experience more so than specific knowledge, and because teachers have autonomy in regards to content, a child’s learning journey in terms of the knowledge they explore is often fragmented and disparate, making connection building and awareness of relevance difficult. Knowledge-rich advocates argue for well sequenced, progressive units of work that build upon the last, developing vocabulary and understanding, with the teacher poised to help connect knowledge from one step to the next making the process memorable and inherently useful. The children in this model who are learning about a unit in history, or studying a classical text will be (it is assumed) thinking about the knowledge they are learning about. With the knowledge being the end goal, it should be front and centre in the lesson, and knowledge-rich pedagogy is designed to be making the children actually think about the knowledge in question. The quote from Daniel Willingham always comes to the fore here “memory is the residue of thought” children will remember what they are thinking about. So in a Scottish P3 class studying Egyptians, where knowledge is not the main objective, a child could be making ancient Egyptian flat breads with a generic skill of comparing peoples lives in the past with their own. But the memorable experience, or the thing the child will inevitably be thinking about here would be making bread with friends, not abstract facts about the Egyptians.

So for me, this forces a question of purpose. What is it that we want our education system to do? What is more important, the recall of facts and a secure knowledge base or something broader, something more difficult to measure, something fluid and flexible?

In her fantastic blog post on the subject, Debra Kidd questions what she wants her teaching to do:

“how is my teaching going to impact on the future of the world? To make it a more compassionate and responsible place? How am I ensuring that children leave here able to form healthy relationships so that they don’t become lonely? How do I teach them to believe that they have the power to change the world, not just to recount what it used to be?”

There are several critics of the knowledge rich approach who see it purely as a means to metricise our education system. To increase accountability, and create a system in which the most valuable outcomes are those which are most easily measured. Measuring compassion, social justice, kindness, friendship, self-worth and integrity is not a straightforward task. Measuring students knowledge is a slightly easier pursuit through the use of high stakes assessments. The influence of neo-liberalism is at play here, as it is seen in many aspects of our education system (and society in general) at present. Efficiency, competition and accountability trumps slow, complex nuanced progress towards shifting and fluid goals designed to challenge status quo and bring about and end to injustice.

For me the central argument against the knowledge-rich, direct instruction debate comes from Paolo Freire’s critique of the ‘banking’ model of education where students are viewed as empty vessels to be filled by the teacher, with learning seen as the act of depositing. In this model of learning, students are seen as the outcome of the teacher’s actions, and they are not viewed as subjects in their own right. As mentioned above, I think this debate is around the question of purpose. What do you see as the purpose of education? Your answer to this will dictate your position in this debate. I feel drawn to a more inclusive or progressive model of education that defines purpose in terms of democratic principles, developing critical thought with the goal of tackling injustice and inequality to disrupt status quo. I do not feel this can be done with the more passive, product-orientated model put forward by most knowledge-rich advocates.

However, I am constantly mindful of Dewey’s criticism of an ‘either, or’ philosophy. I am intrigued by the place of knowledge in our curriculum for all of the benefits mentioned above. I feel that knowledge should belong to everyone, and that in order to be able to challenge status quo, everyone should be entitled to the best of what has been said and written. There is an excellent chapter by Aurora Reid in the ReaserchED book on Curriculum (short version of the argument here) which acknowledges the working class struggle and critical pedagogy theory, whilst making a strong argument for the need for knowledge to provide an understanding of the way of things are and were, before being able to make things better.

And so, I find it hard to make any genuine conclusions in this debate. I think it is clear through my discussion above how conflicted I am. Ironically I think I need more knowledge and understanding to be able to make more of an informed decision on this. However, it is clear that knowledge alone will not help me here. What I am doing is engaging in critical thought and challenging the way things are, which I will continue to do as long as I am an educator. Ultimately, Knowledge-rich curricula and direct instruction, for me, are currently presented as another silver bullet that will cure all issues in education and lead to high performance. But, I just don’t believe in the existence of quick-fix, cure-all, universal saviours in education. Therein lies the struggle.

This argument and discussion is by no means complete. There are several areas that are under-developed or not touched on at all. I think I will come back to this discussion over the coming weeks and make this more of a series of posts as I read and understand more.