Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Venus, Mars, Mercury and Earth

Yesterday evening I read the Afterword to the book 21st Century Skills.  The chapter, entitled "Leadership, Change and Beyond the 21st Century Skills Agenda" by Andy Hargreaves is about the different education movements since the 1960s which are given the names of different planets based on their characteristics.  I was at school during the "Venus" phase, and although I didn't start teaching in the UK until the early 1980s I would say I was still very influenced by it.  When I hear young teachers today say things like "it's not my job to write curriculum" it really amazes me because that was exactly what I was taught to do when I did my PGCE and trained to be a teacher and what I spent the first 6 years of my teaching career in the UK doing - writing the curriculum and developing the resources.  At this time there was no national curriculum in the UK and we had a lot of autonomy in what we actually taught.  When I moved overseas there was no international curriculum either except for the IB diploma for 16-18 year olds.  Lower down in the school it was up to us to decide what and how to teach.  I was lucky in that my predecessors at this international school hadn't bought into the huge plastic tubs of resources that were coming out of the USA and seemed to contain everything a teacher could ever want - teacher guides, student textbooks, videos, posters, photocopyable worksheets and end of chapter tests - and I was still encouraged to design my own curriculum.  In fact to be perfectly honest you didn't even really need to be a teacher to use those tubs of resources, you just had to follow the lessons outlined in the handbook.  I was quite amazed the first time I ever saw these - I had no idea that such things existed.

Anyway I digress.  Here are the characteristics of the different stages of education:

Venus - innovative but inconsistent:  This stage was typical of the 1960s and 1970s and was experimental, innovative, progressive and child-centred.  As mentioned above, teachers had a great deal of autonomy, were generally regarded as professionals and trusted to do a good job.  There was a lot of freedom for teachers to develop a curriculum that met the varying needs of their students.  A lot of learning was "on the job", with teachers trying things out and deciding as individuals what worked and what didn't.  This led to huge variations in the quality of education.  There was very little professional development and the success of schools was often down to the caring and charisma of those leading them but it was this that had encouraged me to go into teaching and it was in this atmosphere that I felt I could make a difference.

Mars - standardized:  When I left the UK in the latter half of the 1980s the signs were that there was going to be a national curriculum.  This stage was typified by a more competitive approach to education, with a national curriculum, outcomes and benchmarks, standardized tests and league tables of schools.  Apparently this was to give parents more information and choice about the schools they sent their children to (though depending on where they lived the choice could be very limited and some parents who could afford it actually moved into the catchment areas of the "better" schools).  This stage was one of greater consistency with a fixed curriculum for all students in primary and much of secondary defined by Key Stages.  Each year we were presented with statistics that showed that students were achieving better and better scores on the tests, which led to accusations that the tests were getting easier.  I know of some teachers who have told me that the national curriculum made them better teachers, and I know of others who stopped teaching altogether at this time as they complained that they spent their days filling in forms and that they didn't like being told what to teach and how to teach it regardless of the students in their class.  They complained that the league tables led to a feeling of mistrust in the teaching profession and that they were sacrificing the quality and breadth of their previous programme in order to "teach to the test" using the methods set out by the government.  I would say that at this time teaching was not an attractive option for graduates and many of my friends who were still teaching in the UK said these moves led to them being regarded as less professional than before.  With Ofsted inspections and the threat of special measures, everyone became a lot more accountable and leadership simply turned into line management.  Andy Hargreaves refers to this when he writes:  "teachers saw their leaders as managers who had forgotten how to lead ... and seemed to have more attachment to ... advancing their own careers than serving their own schools."

Mercury - world class standards:  Thankfully I missed all that as I'd already left the UK and was involved in developing the programmes that would become the forerunners to both the IB MYP and the IB PYP an an international school in Europe.  These programmes were more concerned with concepts and understanding.  There was more emphasis on creativity, inquiry and teamwork.  As teachers in international schools in various European countries, we at times met together to develop the philosophy behind these programmes and at other times we "met" electronically.   Later we were involved in professionally developing the teachers in those schools who adopted the programmes.  Today it's fashionable to talk about 21st century skills, yet the founders of these IB programmes were discussing these skills 10 years before the start of the 21st century.  We were talking about problem solving, risk taking and continuous professional learning.  During these years we connected with each other through the new forms of communication that were being developed such as email and built our own professional networks.  The curriculums we developed were transdisciplinary (PYP) and interdisciplinary (MYP) and I believe being a part of this development really encouraged us as professionals.

Andy Hargreaves writes about some of the shortcomings of the Mercury approach.  Outside of the IBO programmes taught in international schools, various countries and districts seemed to be adopting this approach to education too, for example Finland, Singapore and Alberta in Canada.  Hargreaves writes that these new skills didn't really take account of the need to fight for environmental sustainability, social equality, the eradication of poverty and so on (I would actually argue that values laden curricula such as the PYP, MYP or DP do actually address these issues).  Hargreaves questions whether the Mercury approach, based on speed, communication and commerce, can really address the needs of the 21st century particularly in the areas of quality of life, social justice and sustainability.  He proposes a new phase of education which he terms the Fourth Way of Earth.

Earth - inspiring and inclusive:   This way has much more focus on the relationship between educational leadership and school improvement as teachers design the curricula together.  The teaching and learning is "deep and mindful" and so is the learning of teachers who are encouraged to slow down, stop and reflect.  In this stage "responsibility precedes accountability".  Confidence in education grows again because parents are seen as being part of the learning community.  Teachers work "in thoughtful, evidence-informed communities that value both hard data and soft judgement, applied to deep and compelling questions of professional practice and innovation".  Leadership is distributed in order to develop successors - it is "sustainable as well as successful".  Innovation is encouraged, respect for teachers grows and this leads to achievement for all students.  The emphasis is on creativity, flexibility, lifelong learning, teamwork and diversity.

Having taught in both the Venus and the Mercury systems, and thankfully having missed out the Mars approach entirely, I'm now ready for moving onto the Earth approach to education.  I'm impatient to move to my next school where the focus is on the 21st century.  As Andy Hargreaves writes:
21st century skills require 21st century schools.  Mindful teaching and learning;  increased innovation and curriculum flexibility; learning that is personally customized and also connected to students' wider life projects;  evidence-informed rather than data-driven improvement; shared improvement targets ... energizing networks that connect schools to each other and systemic leadership ... these are just some of the strategies that will give us the best 21st century schools.
Photo Credit:  Slow and Gentle by Bosbob50  AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike 

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