Schools have become snazzier but shallower

After 10 years away, an educationalist returns to Britain to find better-looking schools but some very weird lessons.

Returning to London schools to work in teacher training after 10 years in the US, it was apparent to me that something had changed. Maybe it was the eight-foot metal fences, turnstiles or other security systems that have replaced the school gates? Or perhaps it was the multitude of shiny new buildings, complete with steel columns, reception areas that resemble airport lounges, and walls adorned with abstract art?

Where have the dilapidated classrooms and shabby uniforms gone?, I wondered. Most pupils are dressed as if they are on the way to a prep school, and the classrooms… they are reminiscent of a swish office with their glass walls, electric windows, smartboards and other IT equipment. Even the teachers are dapper. Worn tweed jackets and pullovers have been replaced by business suits and ties.

It was the moment when I walked into a (staff) bathroom to find the wash basin accompanied by a real, fresh towel, hand lotion and a scented air freshener that I knew things had really changed. With shabby, old comprehensives gradually being replaced by modern, well-resourced schools, materially things are much improved (discounting those security systems). 

Unfortunately, there is another side to the massive change in UK schools. Sitting down to observe a lesson, it soon became clear to me that teaching has changed, too. Just about all the lessons begin with several ‘learning objectives’ projected on to the whiteboard (which has replaced the old blackboard and chalk). Sometimes the objectives are pitched at different national curriculum ‘levels’ and pupils write down the objective that ‘fits their own level’. Quickly, the lesson moves on to a ‘starter’ activity, a photograph to interpret or a question to answer, which introduces the lesson. Then the main part of the lesson begins, often led by Powerpoint presentations, video clips, worksheets and pupil activities. 

Most lessons include some form of ‘assessment for learning’. This means the teacher will poll the class as to how well they have understood a given objective or idea. This idea isn’t necessarily new. Getting pupils to hold up their answers on slate boards for the teacher to see was a technique employed by Victorian teachers. Yet assessment for learning has become an almost mandatory part of today’s school lesson. Like much in the modern classroom, a sensible teaching strategy has been transformed into a standalone technique. Here, the assessment, rather than concepts or ideas, becomes the focus of the lesson. 

The lesson frequently ends with a plenary and/or ‘exit cards’. The plenary involves some sort of summary statement or review, in which pupils are asked to write something that they have learnt from the lesson on a piece of paper before handing it to the teacher. Again, this gives the teacher a quick assessment of what pupils have learnt from the lesson. 

What concerns me about the new teaching culture is not necessarily the use of any one technique or technology, but that the emphasis of teaching has shifted from content to process. Schools have become preoccupied with technique and skills over education and subject knowledge. There is almost a tick-box approach to the lesson, which must include: aims, learning objectives, assessment for learning, literacy, critical-thinking skills, provision for special educational needs, differentiation, independent learning and provision for children’s different learning styles. This mechanistic and competence-based view of teaching doesn’t just devalue the teachers; it devalues their subject knowledge, too. Even classroom management is being taken out of the hands of teachers by school-wide behaviour-management policies. 

The education profession, the inspection regime of Ofsted and the Training and Development Agency for Schools (now the Teaching Agency) have all played their part in driving this new teaching culture. University departments of education dedicate little time to the what and why of education. Philosophy of education and the sociology of the curriculum have been sidelined by action research, assessment and pedagogy. The writing of teaching standards against which teachers are assessed has encouraged the standardisation of teaching as a set of measurable competencies, and Ofsted itself has reinforced this notion through its assessment of teachers and schools. With academic knowledge derailed as the central rationale of teaching, Ofsted and others have sought alternative, technical means for measuring the worth of a teacher. This cookie-cutter approach leaves no room for the eccentric teacher who can inspire his or her class with an unusual take on a subject or a unique style of teaching. 

The new regime also frowns on traditional teaching methods, especially ‘chalk and talk’, upon which many teachers relied for decades. This isn’t to suggest that that’s the only way of teaching, but there is a good reason why teacher-led pedagogy has been depended upon: it works. After all, it is teachers who must break knowledge down into progressively more complex concepts and ideas that both make sense to children and will lead them to higher levels of understanding. The best teachers are those who have a comprehensive and deep understanding of their subject and the ability to convey this to children. 

Surprisingly perhaps, many teachers today still manage to teach their pupils something valuable. But this is in spite of the new teaching regime, not because of it. I recently heard a story from a north London school where a teacher received an ‘outstanding’ grade from Ofsted for her pupil-centred, multi-dimensional lesson. But she later realised that her pupils had not learnt what she wanted them to, so as soon as the inspectors had left the building, she reverted to her usual, teacher-led approach. 

With the new corporate culture of London’s schools, knowledge is being marginalised, reduced to packageable components that can be consumed in one lesson and divorced from the knower. This is management-style schooling, not education. Learning is more complex than ticking off boxes for learning objectives, one lesson at a time. So, three cheers for the new buildings and smart technology - but ultimately children will only be inspired by new ideas and powerful theories, not by managerial prowess and technical competence. 

Alex Standish is a lecturer in geography education at Institute of Education, University of London. He is the author of The False Promise of Global Learning: Why Education Needs Boundaries, published by Continuum. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

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