Monday 14 January 2013

Wisdom - a vision for education

Healing the academic versus social split

I applaud Ofsted saying that a school will be judged inadequate if “there are serious weaknesses in the overall promotion of pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development (SMSC)” .

I remain concerned that many ignore SMSC and see schools as academic factories.

Education - a positive or negative legacy?

What wonderful legacy 2012 has left us.  Remember those GB athletes who thanked their teachers and schools?  We must accentuate this positive, identify our brightest and best school leavers and evaluate what made them so.  Unfortunately, the harrumphing gainsayers had plenty to go on in 2012 too as Leveson, bankers’ bonuses, tax avoidance, MP’s expenses (again), crime and rising unemployment, all in a recession allowed them to diagnose, ‘Broken Britain’ and turn on schools (again) for spawning such trouble and brandishing evil tasting medicine.  Some championed a return to gold standard “O” levels, thinking foolscap paper in quiet examination rooms would solve it all.  Eyes watered as others muttered, “Back to basics”, wanting a return to National Service and even corporal punishment, concluding, “It never did us any harm”, forgetting these twin solutions were the very diet of many failing MPs and bankers.

On which side of this positive-negative or academic-social divide are you?  One teacher made his position clear to me “Let me teach my subject, employ a social worker for the other stuff.”  Educators like me believe education is more than subject knowledge.  We know that academic achievement is enhanced by the motivation of a moral purpose. These are not competing visions.

How will Ofsted judge a school?

Ofsted, to whom many turn for leadership, perpetuates a fuzzy, bi-polar view in the new Framework for Inspection.  This January’s update sets out 4 Key Judgements: achievement; teaching; behaviour and leadership and adds, as if an afterthought, “Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural education” (SMSC) and a requirement to meet the needs of the “range of pupils at the school.  This causes some to downplay the last two.  Later, thank goodness, the framework is unequivocal stating that a school will be judged inadequate if “there are serious weaknesses in the overall promotion of pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development”.  So the actual message is a warp of academic functions and a weft of the social totalling 6 equal and complementary elements, to weave one rich curriculum tapestry.  So, why don’t we have 6 Key judgements Ofsted?

What do parents and employers want schools to produce?

Parents want children to know stuff, understand things and pass examinations, but guardians of our future citizens also want: awe and wonder; beliefs; enjoyment and social skills. They want their offspring to know about right and wrong; consequences and influences that shaped our heritage.  I champion their SMSC list because overemphasising standards of achievement warps the vision – pun intended.  Industry and commerce want better educated recruits. Of course they want literate and numerate workers who can prove their prowess with a set of examination certificates but they also want honest, thinking, caring colleagues able to take initiative and be good members of their teams. Teachers I meet buckle under the nagging pressure to climb just league tables. I see it saps their energy, creativity and effectiveness, as they subconsciously teach to the test and the fun drains out of classrooms. So I advise anyone who is going to judge a school to chant the two magic spells, “ABRACADABRA!” to check the important academic A, B and Cs and, “Open SMSC!” to evaluate the Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural education and not forget the D, E and Fs.

Let’s rediscover Wisdom.

Using a stronger metaphor, let’s weld that social-academic split together and place the underused word ‘wisdom’ at the joint.  Wisdom means experience, knowledge and good judgement.  Wisdom knows how to use knowledge.  All the schools I have taught in, led, advised and know of, stress knowledge. The very best create wisdom from knowledge by blending in the spiritual, moral, social and cultural aspects. Students in these schools not only achieve their highest academic potential but also develop thoughtful philosophies and strong ethics.  They know WHAT they can do and HOW to do it because they understand WHY it should, or should not be done.  We really should celebrate the thousands of teachers who create wisdom in their classrooms day after day.  These are the teachers who taught our Olympians and our very best financial experts and members of parliament. I want to explain how I see them creating our successful and wise citizens.

How do we teach wisdom?

Teachers may call it SMSC, Moral Purpose, Pastoral Care, Personal and Social Education or Citizenship, but they are clear about what they mean.  It is about placing values and moral purpose at the heart of what they do.  One negative observer joked that these caring teachers are merely Cookery teachers who have run out of recipes, PE teachers who have run out of wind and RE teachers who have seen the darkness.  But in the greatest schools all teachers use SMSC to make tangible links between their classroom and the wider world because they want their students to be wise.  Visiting such schools you can sense it in seconds, in the displays, the ways the students talk to you, to each other and about what they are learning.  This is tough stuff for teachers.  I was with a Science department recently debating, with great sensitivity, how they would deal with the ethical issues when teaching genetics, abortion and cell generation.  They knew the facts were never going to be enough. 

Increasingly schools are using “The Day” a powerful on-line newspaper dedicated to helping teachers fire up learning with daily articles on current affairs and the associated ethics. Busy teachers use the brilliant prompts for discussion and follow the links about moral dilemmas.  They blend this critical thinking with the content of the curriculum.  Students, left to their own devices, follow the weblinks in their own time and families too are increasingly subscribing to this new, ethical and interactive source of news.

Social learning is the scaffolding for academic learning.

How do we help schools who undervalue SMSC?  First, they need time to think. Development time is crucial.  On such days I ask, “Why did you want to be a teacher?  What values do you promote? We look at the Ofsted criteria and discuss what we mean by SMSC.  We map where SMSC learning happening and what impact it is having.  Increasing numbers of schools use The SMSC Grid here or iAbacus  nifty software programs that help track and evaluate quality provision.  We move on to scrutinise the UN Declaration of Human Rights and Rights of the Child discussing how they apply.  As a Member Country we are required, by law, to disseminate, display, read and expound these in schools.  I challenge them to sign a Pedagogical Oath, mirroring the Hippocratic Oath, which captures the principles of our profession. In one school we set up Vision Walks.  A teacher, parent, governor and student recorded, from all they saw and heard, what they wanted more of, less of and what they didn’t see that they did want. Their results led to a rethink. These activities and documents help identify values and actions most reasonable people would espouse and soon, even sceptical teachers are convinced. Days like this re-motivate teachers and through them students.

What next?

Many educationalists believe that blending the social and academic, combining the functional and ethical makes a positive impact to learning.  They want to see brighter, socially minded bankers who might just forgo their bonus and well qualified and compassionate engineers, unlikely to fill in dodgy tax returns. We hope for greater civic participation as more vote, persuaded by able, politicians with a moral purpose.  It should mean more ethical investments, more newspapers with well researched articles and fewer corrupt police.  If so, job done, problem solved, Broken Britain mended and here comes Big Society.  

Of course it is not be easy but many believe it is a solid proposition because it places interdependent learning as a loftier aspiration to independent learning.  High academic achievement is largely an individual pursuit.  It is often lonely, can become egocentric and may lead to selfishness.  When we involve students in Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural education, they interconnect, gain a global perspective and find ways to apply their learning with a moral purpose.  They become wise.

© John Pearce 14.1.13