Education policies: Current certainties to new visions

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A new book looks at the ways we teach children and how we assess their progress - and sets out a vision for improving our methods. One of the book's editors, Dominic Wyse, explains.

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We've been told by the head that the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) is no longer a stage in its own right looking holistically at young children ... she says it is merely a precursor to Key Stage 1 (KS1). So formal learning is now coming down from Year 1, through Reception and into the nursery class with the three-year-olds that I teach. We were explicitly asked by our head teacher to make nursery 'more formal' in order to ensure children are not being left behind. 'More formal' means more direct teaching of maths and phonics ...

The effect of us spending more time on teaching maths and phonics means that we spend less time supporting the children in free-flow child-initiated play ...

In my school the EYFS is being pressured into becoming a clone of KS1. The philosophy and values of the EYFS are being eroded (from Exploring Education and Childhood: from current certainties to new visions by Wyse, Davis, Jones, Rogers).

The heartfelt words of this early years teacher prompt so many questions. But two questions in particular: what is the most appropriate way to assess children's learning, and who should decide how teachers teach? There has been an ever-increasing level of performativity through statutory assessment, and ever-decreasing agency of teachers and children to have a say over their education, in England particularly but in other countries of the world as well.

Our new analysis of education and childhood (see box) conceptualises these two issues, and many others, as certainties. Certainties are the issues that irrespective of the political views of successive governments, and in spite of manifesto claims about new ideas, remain unchanged from election to election. So, for example, the idea that statutory testing of England's young children is desirable has not changed since its introduction in 1988, even if testing has intensified and the details of the processes have changed.

Education is most frequently described by politicians as a means to economic prosperity. In times of recession, further pressure on education comes as a result of both the more limited resources available to education and pressure for 'performance' to contribute to economic growth. At the same time the need for 'certainties' is more keenly felt, and politics perhaps becomes more risk averse.

The current certainties in early years and primary education, in our view, are: synthetic phonics as the only method to teach reading; the phonics screening check; continual performance monitoring of narrowly measured learning in limited areas; challenges to play-based learning; more formal teaching in general; and reductions in professional agency, in the face of political rhetoric suggesting that more autonomy over areas such as the curriculum is needed.

Analyses of a range of these certainties have been published in our new book Exploring Education and Childhood: from current certainties to new visions.

The teacher's voice quoted at the beginning of this article begins the chapter High Stakes Assessment, Teachers and Children by Guy Roberts-Holmes. The damaging effects of high-stakes assessment are critiqued on the basis of research and theory. The new vision that is proposed is to return to holistic assessment of children's achievements, for example using the idea of learning stories.

The learning stories approach is similar to New Zealand's Te Whariki curriculum in which children learn through responsive and reciprocal relationships (Carr and Lee, 2012). Central to the Te Whariki curriculum are co-constructed learning journeys or learning stories between the child and teacher. A child's learning story makes explicit to the child and their family aspects of the child's learning and in particular their development of positive learning dispositions. Conversations about the children's learning journeys can encourage young children's self-awareness that their learning is contextually specific, dynamic and variable. The use of learning stories in this way demands educated early years teachers who are capable of developing opportunities and strategies for listening to and reflecting with children about their ideas (Carr, 2011). This process of reflection upon learning was encouraged in the EYFS in England through the process of SST (shared sustained thinking) (Silva, et al., 2004), in which children and teachers articulate their ideas together.

diamondThe blue diamond that you can see on the right became a metaphor for the book, a touchstone perhaps. One of the 'certainties' of digital technology in education, and in wider society, has been the regular predictions that technology will solve all our problems. Significant financial investment by Government in digital technology, while welcome, has come with unrealistic expectations of its capacity to transform education. The missing ingredient has nearly always been sufficient professional development to enable teachers to match pedagogy to the technology.

The image is the intriguing start to Lynn Roberts' chapter Technology and Education. The image of the blue diamond came about as part of a 'Digital Shoebox' project that encouraged children to use mobile phones to capture images at home and in their community, and then to upload them to the online photo sharing site Flickr.

Seven-year-old Sarah chose photos of pets, toys and of her family, and the blue diamond. But it was the blue diamond that achieved cult status among her peers. The class wanted to know where the diamond had come from. Were there any others? When did Sarah get it? What did she do with it? Among the chapter's many practical messages about the best ways to use technology in the early years and primary classroom, it is an example of how teachers continue to engage children and their learning in exciting ways. The chapter also shows how the teacher, with support, was able to use appropriate knowledge and their agency to affect changes in teaching and learning.

Our analyses do not shy away from robust criticism of educational policies that sometimes simply did not have the desired effect, and more worryingly sometimes are in our view detrimental to children and teachers. However, we match these certainties with new visions, conscious that it is perceived by some to be 'easy to criticise' but less easy to propose alternatives.

One of the overarching new visions of education that we propose is that children's agency and teacher's agency should be central to early years and primary education. But we also go into much more detail. The final chapter of the book proposes 36 far-reaching changes to education as part of its manifesto for change. You can see 12 of these in the box above.

One key aspect of agency, and other desirable features of education, is 'voice'. The starting point for the book was the voices of the authors (themselves steeped in the practice and research of education). The voices of the authors are evident in their rallying call for the empowerment of children, their teachers and teacher educators; key people in the educative process.

The necessary fulfilment of children's rights, needs, wishes and passions can only become reality in education through recognition and sensitivity to what children say (or do not say) and communicate through their actions. Teaching and learning enacted through research-informed pedagogy, in an education system which hears and responds to voice, will empower children in the co-construction of knowledge, and is a fundamental element in the vision of our book. We hope you will respond to our manifesto for change.

 

THE MANIFESTO FOR CHANGE

Manifesto points arising from the first 12 chapters of Exploring Education and Childhood

- Increase emphasis on evidence, rather than ideology, in the education system.

- Children's voices should be repeatedly and actively listened to and constructively acted upon.

- Put more emphasis on children thinking about their thinking and their learning, not simply being consumers of education.

- Achieve an equal balance between more general national educational curriculum aims and teacher-determined and child-determined curricula.

- Change emphasis on high-stakes national testing and targets to emphasis on child-centred formative teacher assessment.

- Focus on the pedagogy when using new technology, not just the technology.

- Replace the punitive emphasis of national education systems with much greater emphasis on trust in teachers and children.

- Motivate teachers' interests in human triumphs, defeats and inventiveness, including study of empire and conflict.

- Support teachers to use theoretical diagnostic information about special needs sensitively alongside their professional knowledge of the children they teach.

- Ensure greater emphasis on inclusive learning.

- Give priority to the most disadvantaged families to access the best schools and the best teachers.

- Encourage critical reflection throughout the education system, not least because it is vital to the development of professional knowledge.

EXPLORING EDUCATION AND CHILDHOOD

Exploring Education and Childhood: current certainties to new visions by Dominic Wyse, Rosemary Davis, Phil Jones and Sue Rogers (eds) will be published by Routledge (PB, £24.99) on 4 June.

Chapters include Children's Thinking by Anne Robertson; Expertise, Knowledge and Pedagogy by Tony Eaude; Language and Culture in Foreign Language Teaching by Paula Ambrossi; Inclusion or Special Educational Needs? Uncertainty in the Twenty-First Century by Joseph Mintz; Embracing Diversity in the Classroom: A Cross-Cultural Perspective by Lynn Ang and Rosie Flewitt; Families, Society and School Choice by Georgina Merchant; and Politics, Policy and Teacher Agency by Sue Bodman, Susan Taylor and Helen Morris.

For more information, visit www.taylorandfrancis.com.

Dominic Wyse is professor of early childhood and primary education at University College London, Institute of Education

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