Category Archives: Misc.

Knowledge vs. habits of mind (oh, and how many spokes does the London Eye have?)

I finished Guy Claxton’s new book – What’s the point of school?  a couple of days ago, just in time to chair a panel debate yesterday at the RSAat which he was the main speaker (the audio will be on the RSA site in the next few day).

This past few weeks’ convulsions in the banking system have illustrated that the modern world is full challenge and uncertainty, as well as opportunity. Against this backdrop, Guy argues convincingly that if the primary job of education is to prepare young people to thrive in that world, then practitioners, parents, and the public at large need to think again about school and how it is practiced. It is perverse to watch the effects ripple out from a breaking economic system so complex that none know how to fix it, and then to keep our thinking about school stuck in the old ‘dead metaphors’ of the monastery or the factory.

To make the change we need, Guy says we need to focus less on the reverence and passivity to authoritative knowledge implied in these old ways of thinking, and more on learning and the processes which awaken a desire and capability to learn in everyone.  

At the panel, there was a dangerous outbreak of consensus in the room.

That was until one important point of doubt was raised by Dylan William, Deputy Director of the Institute of Education. He picked up a point similar to the one I raised in my previous post about knowledge and subject disciplines. Dylan asked the audience to close their eyes and picture the London Eye. He then asked for suggestions about how many spokes it had. The answers ranged from four to two hundred.

Dylan then cheerfully announced that he hadn’t a clue either, but what was interesting is that trained mathematicians always gave an answer that was a multiple of four. They are, he says, incapable of suggesting it might be thirty-seven, or an equally random or odd number. Meanwhile, historians would probably be off looking for a source of bias to the question.

His point being that a discipline like maths can profoundly shape the way we see the world. More than collections of information, these bodies of knowledge, theoretical frameworks, skills mould our minds, our intuition and the ways tend to think.

More than ever we will need these disciplines to lead us intuitively to the important, reliable knowledge we need in an ever more complex world. In a media age where so many can amplify their voice, they can tell us what kinds of answers to our questions we should be picking out in the cacophony.

Again I was left asking questions we don’t seem to have good answers for just yet. In a future which rightly emphasises generic competences and habits of mind, what is the role of such subject disciplines? How do we make sure we lead the next generation to the point that the young student in class today is an amazing all-round, lifelong learner, but can also specialise and be a physicist if that is what she wants?

I look forward to carrying on this conversation here, and at future RSA events.


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Moving on from Knowledge vs. Skills

As we get to the end of the party conference season, it is clear that the Conservative’s message of increasing schools freedoms and championing of the Swedish system is beginning to resonate with teachers.


There is a second half to their message which gets less coverage, but is of just as much importance. I sat on a panel with Nick Gibb, Shadow Minister for Schools at a Conservative Party fringe event held by the New Statesman, and supported by Edge. Nick argued passionately that we needed to ensure an academic curriculum for all, and to counter the progressive ideology he perceived as driving knowledge out of the curriculum in favour of, amongst other things, teaching ‘soft skills’.


I was there advocating the approach of the RSA’s Opening Minds curriculum which is now used by over 200 schools to explicitly teach a range of competences around such things as learning, and relating to people. The RSA remain committed to the idea that schooling must change if it is to be relevant to the lives of students and the challenges we face – for a quick overview, check out the first paragraphs of the RSA Charter for Education in the 21st Century (and please do sign up!)


I must admit, I wasn’t the most popular guy in the room, which is a shame as I was trying to sound a conciliatory note.


Nick has a point. Progressives must find a better response to the problem of knowledge. Up to now, many have argued that in a connected world where knowledge is generated and spread so quickly, it is useless to emphasise traditional subject knowledge and disciplines. By the time students leave school the world will have moved on, so what good would it do them to have learned this stuff? Better instead to teach the skills so they can run to keep up.


Well, sort of. This kind of thinking must be tempered by the observation that the main theoretical frameworks, the core ideas and skills within a subject discipline don’t change quite as fast as progressive rhetoric has asserted.


That doesn’t mean that progressives have been wrong to emphasise the importance of a more learner centred approach, taking account of student voice about what and how they wish to learn, and of engaging students by immersing them in practical and experiential learning. Quite the opposite. The OECD reported just a few weeks ago that, going by international comparison, our top-end students do very well academically. Where the UK falls down is with its middle and low performing students who go through the motions of testing but don’t appear to learn a lot, and drop out early.


This indicates schools, who have had to push a content-heavy, test-focussed curriculum taught in a traditional didactic fashion, have struggled to respond to the needs of many students.


We need to move this debate on.


I believe conservatives should take consider more seriously the changing context to schooling, and the need to adapt in order to create a more relevant and engaging experience at school.Progressives can seize the initiative by facing up to the tough question of knowledge. What is the appropriate role of subject disciplines in future? Many Opening Minds schools use topics or projects to increase the relevance of teaching, which integrate the content of several subjects. What have they learned about making such inter-disciplinarity rigorous and strong? How do they ensure that their students are equipped with both the skills and the knowledge to go on and fulfil their potential and ambitions?


– Ian McGimpsey 


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Diversity and choice

Monday’s Edge sponsored lecture on diversity of provision in education provided both a compelling argument for diversity in educational provision and some pertinent concerns about the impact on equality, and the reality of choice in a diverse school system.

Geoff Mulgan, Director of the Young Foundation made a compelling argument for diversity in education, and Anders Hultin, founder of Kunskapsskolan International gave a fascinating account of the voucher system used in Sweden. You can hear both speeches as well as the Q&A session in full in the audio file located here.

For me, the argument was made useful by the helpful distinction made between diversity of types of school, and diversity in the content of schooling.

Most people would agree that diversity in the content of schooling is desirable if we are to allow every young person to fulfil their potential.

However, more controversy surrounds diversity in types of school, and this was reflected in the concerns expressed by the audience during the Q&A session. Members of the audience expressed fear that structures which enabled diversity or quasi-markets in education would accentuate existing social divisions by providing opportunities for the well-informed, the educated and the confident, leaving the remainder with the poorest schools.

Interestingly, Anders Hultin countered these concerns saying that in the Swedish system while it was the middle class parents who were first to take advantage of more choice, other groups – particularly immigrant groups – were increasingly beginning to exercise informed choice and to take advantage of the system.

The question is whether Britain, which by some measures has the highest child poverty rate in the developed world, can afford to use Sweden as a model, when the latter has long had among the world’s lowest rates of inequality and deprivation. Do we want to risk embedding greater inequality in another generation, whose parents were divided in their ability to choose?

Geoff Mulgan argues that real diversity of provision within a single school will never be possible and that the school system needs new players in order for real change to occur. Even if there are risks, do we in fact have a choice?

If you would like to comment, please do so here, or visit the comments page for the lecture here.

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Shock admissions

There has been a widespread expression of shock at the grave breaches of admissions rules committed by schools in Manchester, Barnet and Northamptonshire. A ‘large minority’ of schools in these areas have been asking banned questions about parental income and marital status, and some have been charging parents fees to secure places, at times for hundreds of pounds per term.

The outrage expressed at yesterday’s revelations goes beyond that prompted by schools breaking the rules – it is an attack on the covert, or not so covert, selection procedures employed by some schools that threaten to favour the advantaged and accentuate social divides. Never mind that until last February the rules preventing voluntary aided and foundation schools from using such means to select their intake did not exist – there has been a policy shift towards fairness in selection procedures and there seems to have been a shift in expectations to match.

However, this particular admissions controversy comes only two weeks after a similar storm over the number of parents who did not get the first choice of school for their children (see the recent post ‘A festival for journos, an unhelpful distraction for everyone else’, February 26, 2008).

The twin expectations implied by these outcries: that parents should be able to exercise choice over which school their child attends, and that schools and parents must submit to ‘fair’ selection procedures do not sit easily together. Choice inevitably leads to competition for the best schools, and competition tends to mean that someone is going to lose out. The practice of throwing one’s hands up in horror over any given admissions story fails to help parents, students and schools understand this very real dilemma.

If you are interested hearing more about these issues and want to have your say, the RSA will host a lecture in partnership with Edge on 31st March on Diversity of Provision in Education. For more details see

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A festival for journos, an unhelpful distraction for everyone else

Education policy has created a number of seasonal events for journalists to get excited about. Christmas comes in August for the hacks, when the release of GCSE and A-level results prompt images of happy middle-class teenagers opening their presents, sorry results letters.

Well, now we seem to have a new one – admissions day.

It plays right into the heart of parents’ anxieties about the education of their kids. Will they get into a ‘good school’ or be held back by not getting their first choice. The fears are being stoked already, with the Conservatives releasing figures that suggest over 100,000 families missed out of their first choice school last year. That information was obtained through Freedom of Information Act. This year the government plan to publish official figures to the obvious delight of some in the media.

However, if you thought the exam rituals were played-out, this new festival of column-inches is in danger of being irrelevant before it even gets going. This week a report was released indicating that where middle-class students attended schools with challenging intakes which performed at below the average, it had little if any effect on their educational outcomes.

This would appear to support to the thinking of the School Admissions Adjudicator, Philip Hunter, who has made attempts to avoid ‘unacceptable segregation’ in regards to admissions between rich and poor students.

My worry is that, like in so many other areas, we again end up with education policy driven by the media. Experience tells us that the truly damaging effect of this can be to channel expenditure into achieving ends which provide no real educational benefit for young people while, for the lack of a quotable stat, short-changing the really important initiatives like the promotion of creativity in all schools.

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Ambition and Ability

American politicians often like big goals and lofty aspirations which can be summed up in a sentence. To be the first to send a person to the moon is one that springs to mind. And it’s the proof of course, that sometimes they get there.

No Child Left Behind is just one such lofty aspiration. It aims to ensure that every child in the US achieves a basic level of literacy by 2014 – that no child is left behind. While literacy is a focus, it seeks to drive up standards in the American public school system in a range of other areas too.

Since its introduction in 2001, this federal legislation has been controversial. It seeks to create robust accountability for primary and secondary schools through the use of targets, rewards for high performance while forcing under-performing schools to offer students the choice of an alternative provider, or extra tuition.

Its critics say, amongst other things, that the legislation punishes schools in need of support, narrows the curriculum offered to young people, that it’s overly focused on standardized testing, and that its attempts to offer a choice of provider are difficult to implement.

 Supporters tend to argue that in fact NCLB’s emphasis on testing provides the only real data that can uncover under-performance in relation to basic skills, and that direct accountability is the best route available to performance enhancement.

It’s a fascinating debate, and one with real resonances with our experience in this country.

So it is with pleasure that we will welcome Ray Simon, US Deputy Secretary of State for Education to the RSA to talk about the issue on the 27th February as one of our series of lectures arranged in association with Edge. Follow this link to find out more, book your place, and take part in the discussion already running on the RSA site.


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Stuck in the past

One of the big problems for education in this country was illustrated yet again today with the publication of the report from the Centre for Policy Studies’ on re-training military service people to work as teachers in schools.

 First, for clarity, I am not implying there is any reason that people with a background in the military can’t re-train to become wonderful teachers. Secondly, I am commenting less on the substance of the report itself. Rather, what concerns me is the public story that accompanies the report, and some of the response to it from members of the public and politicians.  

 It is just one more demonstration that the public imagination about school is stuck in destructive notions of the ideal classroom being about silence, acquiesence to authority enforced with the threat of sanction, and absorbing knowledge from one point at the front of the class.

The idea things should be this way is contradicted by the schools we know using Opening Minds, or one of a number of other innovative approaches. These schools are seeking to help young people become creative, independent learners, active citizens, and people who can take the opportunities afforded them in a fast moving economy. 

They show the possibility and benefits of actively engaging learners, whatever their background, in buzzing, noisy but focussed classrooms. They create healthy communities which encourage exploration, peer interaction, and most of all excitement about learning.

Disadvantaged young people might ‘respond to raw physical power’ (who doesn’t?!) but they respond better in caring communities of learning.

And that’s the image we need to see in the media, and getting positive responses from politicians. Perhaps we need to shout louder to get that point across?

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