Where now after Covid’s ‘Great Pause’?

Written by: Stephen Tierney | Published:
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Why do we educate? What is important? The Covid experience must change how we think about education. In a new book, chair of the Headteachers’ Roundtable Stephen Tierney, says that clarity about the content that needs to be taught must be matched by clarity about the reason for teaching it...

With schools open for all pupils again, the norms and rhythm of the school day, term and year are slowly being re-established. It is a slightly different normal, both in daily practicalities but also in the mindset of many teachers and school leaders.

The Covid-19 pandemic created our generation’s “Great Pause”. The past six months formed a liminal space – a disorientating time between the world that has been and the world that may be.

These are times that are so profoundly discontinuous that we often rethink the fundamental way we are living our lives. We are likely to have re-entered the world changed by our experiences.

Richard Rohr (2020) sees a parallel between our experiences and the initiation processes that mark the shift from childhood to adulthood. No longer do we see life from our egocentric teenage perspective – “This is my life. I can do what I want”. We move into a bigger world, a more complex world that involves many others; an adult world in which we can create life and we are responsible for the lives and wellbeing of others.

This gives our lives greater meaning and purpose – the relatedness that comes from connecting, interacting and caring for others. This challenges the sometimes immature, competitive, self-serving selves and systems we exist in. It is a call to be more than we currently are.

In part, I would describe this “more” as ensuring a preferential option for the poor, keeping closest to our hearts the most vulnerable, disadvantaged and damaged within our society. We must all be responsible for the lives well lived of all our nation’s children and young people, not just those with whom we come into daily contact.

For this to become a lived reality, we will require a repurposing of our current education system. A number of aspects of our current system need changing, while we also retain the best of what we currently have.

The past decade has seen an increasing focus on the curriculum and on using evidence to inform our practice. Curriculum developments, particularly at a national level, have been from the perspective of cultural transmission and being knowledge-rich. This has led to some significant benefits, but we have reached the point at which the curriculum is heading towards a crash (Allen, 2019). In part this is because the curriculum has become too content heavy.

Professor Dylan Wiliam believes that the teaching of a content-heavy curriculum is “immoral” as “it leaves the majority of pupils behind” (Lough, 2020; Wiliam, 2020). We need to rethink the current amount of content we expect teachers and pupils to cover.

In a fascinating blog, Solomon Kingsnorth (2019) compares the 2015 PISA outcomes for mathematics among students in Estonia, a high-performing country that ranks just below the Pacific Rim powerhouses, with the more moderate outcomes for English students.

He starts by looking into what he sees as the alarming number of incorrect answers in GCSE mathematics papers. He does not blame schools or teachers. Rather, his hypothesis is that “the national curriculum, from year 1 to year 11, is too big for large-scale mastery”. This leads to the curriculum being all about coverage, a race through the content. Whether pupils have grasped the important underlying concepts or not the teacher has to move on. He sees this as the key problem to be addressed.

The Goldilocks principle requires the curriculum to be just right. Hitting the mastery sweet spot requires a series of decisions to be made to ensure that, within the time available, the curriculum has the right amount of challenge and content – neither too much nor too little.

The Kingsnorth blog is focused on the “what” and in part the “how”. Curriculum discussions need to include these but also go deeper – to the “why”. This goes to the heart of what matters, the why we educate.

The horrific killing of George Floyd in America has brought the Black Lives Matter movement into much greater focus. Naming injustice is insufficient unless that naming leads to the injustice being addressed. Many believe there is a need to decolonise the curriculum, as an important part of its reform.

Content could include particular people, events or actions, including the slave trade and its abolition or the partition of India. However, a wider range of perspectives need to be brought to bear on the substantive knowledge covered.

The knowledge is important but insufficient. Clarity about the content that needs to be taught must be matched by clarity about the reason for teaching it. Purpose is of paramount importance. If the aim of curriculum change is to address injustice, the challenge of whose culture is being transmitted comes to the fore.

Too often decisions about content are made by a small disproportionately powerful group and imposed on those who are less powerful.

The curriculum needs to lead to and empower pupils to engage in thoughtful actions that will remove discrimination, address inequalities and improve equity. It might include socialisation (Biesta, 2015), which would seek to develop an understanding and initiation into African, Asian or other minority ethnic cultures. For Black communities, this would include a sense of connection to and with the African diaspora. Socialisation helps to give a sense of who we are through our shared heritage.

Recreating our schools to help every child and young person to have “a life well lived” requires a balanced and inclusive perspective on why we educate. It is both a teaching and leadership imperative.

  • Stephen Tierney is chair of the Headteachers' Roundtable Group. Until 2020, he was CEO of the Blessed Edward Bamber Catholic Multi Academy Trust in Blackpool. He regularly speaks at events about leadership and people development, as well as schools’ core business of teaching, assessment and learning. His new book, Educating with Purpose – The heart of what matters (John Catt Education), is available now priced £14: https://bit.ly/3kd2ubR

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