Does your country need you? One out of five kids say "no"

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Almost one in five young people in Scotland wake up in the morning wondering if their country needs them. In a country that has in many ways never felt so optimistic and excited about its future, this should be a momentous wakeup call, a call-to-arms for the whole community. The line comes from the opening page of Sir Ian Wood’s report on how employers and education might manage a genuine culture of partnership, and answering this claim was the palpable bone of contention during an evening last week of discussion, talks and food, with some of Scotland’s education leaders and management, at SELMAS.

In Scotland, based on my experience and the stories told at Thursday night’s event, I’d suggest that there are three fatal blows to closing an achievement gap, most of them rooted in how education and business choose to play with each other. I'm going to walk through them over a few blog posts to come:

1. For some schools and businesses there is a lack of interest in partnering - the “what’s in it for me” just isn’t visible.

2. For other schools and businesses, there is a lack of knowledge on how to partner and what to partner on - “the what’s in it for me” is maybe agreed upon in principle, the enthusiasm is there, but what the “it” might be is the challenge.

3. Finally, for some schools, there is a genuine disdain and contempt for working with any organisation that is not their own, and publicly funded. Here, business and schools can't even agree to play with each other.

May 31, 2015

Why education needs more fuzzy thinking

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It’s been a decade since I first heard the education conference cliché that we are preparing our kids for a future we don’t even understand. I argue that since then we've done little about it, in this week's Editorial in the Times Educational Supplement.

Ten years ago, that wasn’t really true. In fact, the immediate future was pretty predictable between 2005 and 2010: the internet remained slow and some kids didn’t have it at home, most didn’t use Facebook, smartphones were still far too expensive and the iPad wasn’t launched until January 2010. Even terrorism was mostly still “over there”, and wars likewise, rather than recruiting from comprehensives in the Home Counties.

Since then the world has learned what “exponential” really means. The normal trajectory post-school is no longer a linear certainty but a struggle with what a new breed of thinker and doer embraces as “fuzzy goals”. This emergent group of young people, activists and senior industry leaders spends most of its days grappling with unknown unknowns – technologies, jobs, ways of thinking and, yes, even terrorist groups that we didn’t even know we didn’t know about.

At the same time, our understanding of “what matters” in education hasn’t budged beyond a few pockets of relative daring. We still operate within our hierarchy of subjects, overcharged curricula and an expectation that teachers will stand and deliver it. There is little room for fuzziness here.

In this week's Times Educational Supplement, I expand on how fuzzy problem-finding and -solving are some of the core skills that we've been ignoring too long in the search for standaradisation and content-heavy cramming. What do you think?

Pic by HB2

May 18, 2015

Do we actually want to close the achievement gap?

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I end this small run of blog posts with the question posed by Professor Brian Boyd at the beginning of our evening:

Do we want to close the achievement gap?

We know we can close the gap. It’s been done or almost been done before in Scottish education, but the answers have been ignored as they pass us by. The simple clue is this: poverty is single biggest predictor of achievement, and according to research (Hammonds sic, reference required), aged 10, a child living in poverty is 60% less likely to get to university.

Boyd borrowed from his own mother’s report card to ask us what kind of education we desire. Is it the academic success at all costs route, or is there another option we need to value as much, if not more? His mother’s report card, one that prevented her from becoming a secondary school pupil in Glasgow, is filled with G and FG, until the last point: Character and conduct - excellent.

What kind of pupils do we want to develop in Scotland? What do we value in our assessment system? Opening up opportunity for all is a tough game to play when the examination system rewards only certain types of behaviour, few of them related to what the Curriculum for Excellence says we stand for. In his own small community in East Kilbride, three secondary schools enter a period of meltdown as the local rag sets about creating its own local league table of performance, with those three ‘teams’ in competition for the top spot (or at least not the bottom one). Therefore, we must stop basing “the gap” largely on attainment.

First of all, Boyd would like us to remove the traditional, and non-sensical academic/vocational divide. Is the law or medicine degree we value not vocational? (Are all General Practitioners not Plumbers, as Dr Murray on the panel suggests?)

Second, we must start from the ground up, in the early years. It is with parental expectations from this youngest age that we can help prevent the gap becoming quite so large in the first place.

Third, there is no research that supports setting. So why do we continue? Telling students they’re not ‘top’ will certainly reinforce their expectation and aspirations to be anything other than top.

Fourthly, pedagogy doesn’t have to be a dirty word. Teachers must have opportunities to talk about learning and teaching, to hone their craft and learn from each other.

Finally, cooperation instead of competition between departments, school types, ages, stages, and sectors is the only way we can begin to crack this question. Scottish schools have never been comprehensive, really. People have flocked to what is perceived to be ‘the good school’, making them better schools as a result. And the rest of them?

but, collaboration with business… a step too far?
Collaboration with business might be the hardest step for Scottish school to take, in a system recognisable today as the one set up by socialist forefathers in the name of equality. For some in the education sphere there are, without a doubt, perceptions that business is anything but equality in action, but instead a position of privilege at the expense of others. This surely has to change.

Maybe it is telling, in fact, that NoTosh, a company I founded five years ago, with the explicit aim to bring creative approaches from creative enterprises into the classroom, sees less than 0.5% of its turnover generated in Scotland, and none of that comes from schools. The picture above, in fact, is of one project where we brought entrepreneurship skills to the vocational education system in Finland. In non-business speak: Scottish schools aren't as interested as nations all over the world, when it comes to seeing how learning, process and leadership from outside education might help us inside formal education. 

One thing is sure: the narrowing and closing of the achievement gap in its widest sense is not something schools and the school system will manage to do on its own. It is, perhaps, long time that conversations between business, creative enterprise and the public service begin to happen much more often, with much more drive to deliver for our children. 

Do schools ever want to partner with business?

 

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“Teachers like to agree with each other, when we talk about learning. It’s hard to change that, when the model we have wanted to make work has nonetheless been failing for 40 years.” Professor Brian Boyd

No area has remained up there in the contentiousness charts in Scotland as the notion of business and education working together to do something better for our young people.

Most schools do not ‘partner’ with colleges or universities. Instead, they are production facilities for undergraduates and college entrants. Fewer are set up to systematically provide apprenticeship opportunities as well as learning. At NoTosh, we’ve been working on a few, nascent projects to change the attitudes of schools from being these production facilities into something more of a life support - what metrics of success might we use if schools judged their success on the results of their alumni, five, ten or twenty years down the line, much like universities do?

City of Glasgow College have partnered with Newlands Junior College (NJC) to make the experience of a day in college more than what, in other circumstances, is too often perceived as a day off from school. The Junior College is called this, and not a school, for that very reason, to mark it out as a stepping stone between school and full-blown college. NoTosh helped last August to provoke the team around their thoughts of what 'unschool' might look like.

The College was backed and founded by Jim McColl, one of Scotland’s top business people. 

In the future, suggests, McColl, might be be possible to take funding of learning out of its pre-existing silos, particularly for this group of students, about 60 in every city at these ages, who just need a different approach to the traditional comprehensive approach? A crossover funding model that helps learning happen in both ‘school’ or Junior College and college or university might be interesting. In fact, some of the world’s top universities are thinking of such models for their own students: Stanford’s 2025 project talks about the Open Loop, where learning and work happen over far more than the usual four year degree, offering students a chance to grow through not just learning, but contributing to society through their work, too.

Such continuums of learning, from school to college to work, are the most rare in the world - we’re lucky in Scotland to have one in the form of Newlands Junior College. If we struggle to collaborate between educational institutions, then collaboration between those not in the world of formal education - namely businesses - feels far fetched. 

McColl is frank on his views of the traditional ‘comprenhensive’ education he received: he couldn’t get out of secondary school fast enough. In his small primary school “people cared”. He was the Dux of his class, even if, he jokes, the class only had seven pupils. Aged 16, he gained his Weir pumps apprenticeship, the choice grounded in nothing other than the fact it was the closest bus stop to his house. But, once there, the trainer told him: “Just work hard and we’ll give you all the support you need. If you want to get to the top, you just have to work hard.” He did. And in 2007 he bought the company. One might say he was successful, but not by any metrics of today’s academic race to nowhere. What he did have was a strong sense of self-efficacy, that sense that he could change the world around him, his own circumstances, through his own efforts. This is what is behind most powerful learning.

He saw that, particularly in Glasgow, poverty and deprivation were holding back too many youngsters. He held Focus Dinners with all the heads of Glasgow schools. They confirmed what he had believed: aspiration from the family was a key differentiating factor.

“Aged 14”, they said, “we can tell who is waiting to check out when they’re sixteen.”

Comprehensive is not comprehensive, he says: “We force kids who are just naturally more vocational into an academic system that doesn’t cater with them.”

The curriculum is made up one around a third in traditional core subjects of maths, science, English and technology, a third of College-based learning and the rest is Life Skills, led by Skillsforce, another partner from the world of non-formal education led by former military personnel. Each week has a theme related to doing better in life. “This week is eye contact week” explains McColl. “It’s funny at first, because they all over-emphasise things, but by the third or fourth day they’ve grown in confidence and hold conversations.”

The culture of obstacles lives on

The culture of obstacles referred to by Dr Murray, in her work engaging young people in the world of medicine, is what must be defeated, though, and it has to include the public sector. But the public sector has to do a better job not to hold back potentially useful ideas from outside its parameters. It has taken six years to get Newlands Junior College where it is today. Had the team waited for every funder and ‘stakeholder’ to give their accord, it would still be a sketch on paper. A third of local schools in Glasgow still refuse to engage with the model at all. There are also people who are too focussed on their own power games, and students are suffering in the meantime.

Compare this slow pace with the measured but impassioned ambition of McColl, who sees NJC and its future cousin schools around the country as always remaining a small family of schools, maybe 10-12 of them, and very much part of the system, an additional resource rather than an outside bolt-on to the system. 

We've got high hopes, hi-i-i-i-gh hopes...

Key to businesses’ success is their sense of high expectation - businesses with incremental improvements in mind barely get past their first tax return. This sense of high expectations is visible in everything NJC does, from its physical decor to the time and effort put into excelling at life, not just subjects. There was an almost disapproving ripple of excitement when the audience were told every youngster at NJC has an iPad. Frankly, it was the statement of entitlement to whatever it takes that was the point, not whether the kids got an iPad or an A4 pad on entry to the school.

All things being equal, are opportunities for all young people there, and are aspirations from all of those around them there? Making sure schools provide that aspiration is the key.

If you want a kid to become a doctor, get them into operations

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Juliette Murray was, like me, a kid at school who got 5 “A”s, which in the West of Scotland put a certain degree of pressure on one’s shoulders to study either medicine or law. I studied European Law, and became a teacher - that's what a European Law degree does to you. She studied medicine and is today a practicing doctor, but the education bug is firmly rooted in what she chose to do next.

Murray noticed that, particularly in her local area, fewer students were applying to study medicine than the population number would suggest should. Not only that, nationally the number of medical students dropping out after beginning their course of study is increasing. She wondered if we might we persuade a more representative cross section of the community to become doctors.

Teenagers in the Operating Theatre

She set about improving the opportunities for local youngsters, aged 14/5, at the time of their work experience choices. Existing work experience for those who want to gain an insight into the world of medical doctors is a sanitised course in an educational skills centre, where bored teenagers endlessly take each other’s blood pressure. They have more chance of a realistic insight by breaking their arm and turning up to Accident and Emergency. As any dad-to-be donning surgical greens knows, getting into an operating theatre is where a passion for surgery will be born or, in my case, definitely put to one side as a career option. So, the question became: how might we offer a more realistic experience of what being a doctor, surgeon or other medical profession feels like?

Culture of obstacles
Starting with her local hospital, Wishaw General in NHS Lanarkshire, she set about overcoming what she describes as a “culture of obstacles”. Two years later, though, and students are indeed undertaking real life surgery work experience, experiencing a live operation theatre and seeing the pressure of the job first hand.

A key hurdle was finding students to populate the programme. John McGilp, head teacher at local Coltness High School, became a  partner in launching a 2015 pilot scheme, co-designing timing and content of various interventions throughout the year to find and prime students for the experience. Beginning with second and third year high school students, they had an early experience in June of the CAT test, required as part of every application to medical school, before other workshops on how to apply for the degree course and what kinds of subject requirements there might be.

120 pupils and their families came to an initial meeting of several high schools’ students, where they met with role models who raised expectations and aspirations. Above all, meeting other students from other schools in the area reinforced the idea that no-one was ‘alone’ in thinking of this ambitious path, that “people like me” did it, too.

The programme makes a point to involve other health care professionals, not just junior doctors, for those for whom it isn’t the right fit, or whose applications are not successful. And, in the meantime, more junior doctors are offering to participate, enthusiastic to help and increasing in number as word gets around.

If it's that good, why doesn't it happen everywhere?

This is a nascent and growing example of what happens when people, who no doubt have many other things going on in their busy lives, make a decision to spend that bit more effort on a mission they feel is worth while. Thankfully for Murray, she found a willing school partner early on, who put in an equal extra effort to make it work. But for ideas like this to 'scale', it requires more than a pack, website or even funding - there was next-to-no additional funding to make this possible in the first place, and not even a purchase code to buy coffee and tea for school kids.

There was just passion and perseverance to do what felt right.

Now, the team are adding to their passion with data showing how it works.

The key is whether other Head Teachers and their leadership teams feel passionate about closing the achievement gap in this way, raising aspiration of what might be possible, to set up and run a similar programme in their own area.

May 17, 2015

Whole-school language of learning, or everyone for themselves?

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A large part of NoTosh's time with schools is spent helping leaders and teachers decide upon common languages of learning. Having a shared vocabulary to describe what we're doing means we spend less time working out what we mean, and more time talking through the nuances of what makes one piece of practice exceptional and another less so - and we can all then improve together, based on what works best.

Feedback is arguably the one element that everyone says "we do that well already, and we do a lot of it!". We have trouble sometimes even engaging teachers to want to think about this more than 10 minutes, because everyone feels they're "feedbacking to death" already. It is seen as a given that feedback is the element that, when done well, can improve the quality of learning more than anything else.

But it's not that feedback is important that is worth exploring. The interesting part is seeing how to engage students in peer- and self-assessment much more, and to make any teacher-led assessment worthwhile. Recently, I've been working with schools where the main battle is getting students to see peer- and self-assessment as being just as important as teacher feedback.

Alex Quigley's school have been exploring how to seam quality feedback throughout the institution, through a whole-school approach to feedback. And this feedback policy has, in fact, replaced their marking policy. His latest blog post is a rich example of how to go about a whole-school language of learning around one element - feedback - and reap the benefits of a coordinated approach in the way that each department then adapts this for their own context.

Picture: origin unknown

About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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