I never thought I would be at this event. When I went to university, or even before I went, I knew one thing about my future career: that I did not want to go into education. This stemmed from the fact that my parents and grandparents were all teachers or lecturers and I was determined to break this cycle. Nevertheless, somehow I ended up helping educate children about science, which lead to helping an education forum develop and deliver geology teaching materials, then on to develop my own lesson in conjunction with the National Museum of Scotland and the University of Edinburgh using a form of interactive storytelling to understand how the sciences can be applied to real life multidisciplinary problems and from there I have managed to land myself a research assistant post at UCL in charge of improving the student experience and pedagogical (holistic teaching and learning) practice across a whole faculty. Somewhere along the way, education managed to wheedle it’s way into my life. And I didn’t even notice it until now.
So it was at the first ever London Festival of Education that I suddenly realised I had ended up in the very place I had sought to avoid over the years. My university paid for me to attend (I found it via Twitter and only after my bosses had agreed that I could go realised it was on a Saturday, but I then managed to get my birthday of in lieu, so it wasn’t all that bad!) and now eagerly await my post on the other blog I maintain for Bartlett students at UCL. To get all my personal opinions out about some of the stuff I attended today, I thought I would also write a post on my own blog.
The day began with a discussion between Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove and political commentator David Aaronovitch on ‘What does an educated person look like?’. Needless to say, the whole audience acted as if they were in attendance at a pantomime, booing and hissing at Gove from the moment his name was first mentioned. I don’t follow educational laws and policy much, so was not really in a position to judge and therefore found listening to what Gove had to say with no prior prejudice extremely interesting. I did not disagree with any of his comments in principle and rather enjoyed the discussion between Aaronovitch and Gove. The discussions were primarily revolving around principles of secondary education and what we want our children to gain from it, rather than on actual policy implemented or higher education.
Some interesting topics that were covered included what we expect or want 16 year olds leaving school to have gained from their education in terms of essential life skills. I found Gove’s answer in principle very satisfactory: he wanted then to have literary and oral skills that meant that they can communicate with other adults in any situation – business, social or other. He believed that they should have knowledge of the sciences to a degree that meant they can be critical of important issues that come up in the media such as MMR vaccines and homeopathy. I personally feel very strongly about the second point. He also compared his current expectations with that of the 60’s, where one leader in education had written that pupils should know of the great minds of old, be able to understand and quote the great authors in history. We realise now that this is not the knowledge that is crucial for a 16 year old to go out into the working world with, and those stated by Gove are of course much more useful.
The idea of the knowledge and skills needed for children leaving education progressed to a discussion on vocational work opportunities – should these be job specific or skills specific? Gove claimed he thought that occupation specific was the best option. Aaronovitch then commented on the different compulsory courses in education at the moment, asking the question of how and whether geography is more important than religious studies today, and other courses such as media studies and what their place in the curriculum is. Aaronovitch was of the opinion that religious studies is surely much more critical for a young person’s understanding than geography, when we live in such a diverse world (and especially when we consider London specifically) and that media studies is also surely essential since it is where everyone gets their information and communicates. Gove pointed out that religious studies is actually compulsory while geography isn’t, a point which I personally do not feel is right, at least they should both be compulsory as geography is a very important subject that also deals heavily with economics, poverty and other global issues such as climate change which surely are just as important as having an understanding of cultural diversity?
The session ended with questions taken from the floor, which was mostly uneventful, in my opinion more were comments that were unproductive in the particular setting. However, the issue of assessment did come up: whether grade boundaries need to be more flexible to allow teachers to encourage those who have potential but cannot show this through exams and also raising the question of whether we need assessment in education at all. Surprisingly, almost the whole floor was in agreement that there should be no assessment whatsoever in education, a view not share by myself or Gove. Someone did cleverly bring up what we actually mean by assessment, and Gove then clarified that he believes in exams (and difficult ones that challenge children to think out of the box), without mentioning any other forms. I believe that there has to be some form of assessment in all education. Whether this be through group work, course work, exams or any other innovative ways of understanding progression for the benefit of children, students and teachers I don’t mind (although personally I hate exams and don’t believe they show the best in children or students, but I also feel that sometimes a formal and standardised mode such as an exam is useful). Understanding how pupils perform in their learning is one way (but by no means the only or even best way) of understanding how well they are being taught, especially for understanding whether their teacher is using the best methods to help these pupils learn. I was surprised by the floor’s reaction to assessment, and wonder why this is such a unanimous feeling amongst teachers.
Since this has turned into a rather long article for just one of the sessions I attended today, I will discuss the others which were also more focusses on higher education in separate posts!