Perpetual change, Perpetual improvement and more. How often should change happen and what is at the heart of it? How can the government setup a system that allows for slow, gradual, continual changes. Plus, find out who should be staying out of the classroom to improve education.
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Hi, I'm Andy Psarianos.
Hi, I'm Robin Potter.
Hi, I'm Adam Gifford.
This is The School of School Podcast.
Welcome to The School of School Podcast.
Welcome back. It's another episode of The School of School Podcast. I'm here with the regular two. Andy, how are you? I'm going to say good evening.
But it might not be. Well, no, it must be close to evening for you.
It's morning. It's 10:30 in the morning.
Okay. So, my time was never my strong point.
We're going to discuss time zones today.
Yeah, exactly. We're going to talk... Yeah. Podcast today is solving problems around time zones.
Yeah, it's all around perception. Are you both well? That's most important.
Very well, thank you.
Yes, very well.
Listen, one of the things, I've been fortunate in that I've been at the summit and I've been talking to quite a few people sort of face to face and it's been really, really interesting. And it got me thinking about when we are sort of confronted with change, or we are thinking about differences of opinion and how we react to that, and sort of getting an idea of how we manage that and how we react to things. It might be how well we go about our business. I don't think I'm explaining it very well. Andy, do you want to jump in at this point, because we were having a conversation with you off-air about this.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
So, we're talking about this probably in the context of should the curriculum in England change if there's a new government? And I suppose, I think the first thing everyone needs to think about is, is that things always need to change. There should be a perpetual change. I think part of the problem that we have is that we tend to do things in kind of really big releases, call it a new curriculum or whatever, right? And it's a shock to the system for people. But I think, if you look at any organisation that's successful and any system that works really well, it's about perpetual change. It's about perpetual improvement because circumstances change all the time.
So, I think the same is true in education. But I think the issue that we have is that it's such a large beast and so complex and we try to change it all in one goal, and it becomes very disruptive because it takes a long time. It takes a long time for an organisation to get good with a new system. And then when you change the system, it might be a better system, but you have to go backwards in order to get there. And I think, it's always a wrestling match between how often do you change to improve things, versus how long it takes to get good at something?
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense because even just, I was fortunate also to be at the summit. Adam, might've seen you there.
Yeah, maybe. And yet, exactly that, Andy. Hearing, just overhearing some conversations amongst the participants and just different perspectives, but it all did come back to change. People saying, "It took us a long time to get to the point we're at. And so, the idea of changing that up, whether it's a better curriculum, whether it's better policy or not, I don't know if I want to go there because it took us so long to get here that we're going to start from scratch all over again." So, it's not even... Sometimes it's not even about what the change is, even if it's change for the better. Sometimes people are just afraid to change because they think, "Oh my goodness, this is going to take us so long to get to the next level that I'd rather just keep going with what we have." And I don't know if that's the right attitude or not, and could be detrimental in some ways, but I do understand that thinking too.
And Adam, jump in whenever you feel you have something to say. But I think that the issue that we have is that we're always, we're trying to manipulate things in the classroom all the time because we think that's where the problem exists, right? And it's like, "The problem is we're not teaching the right topic, or the problem is we're not teaching the... Or kids don't know their times tables well enough, or they don't have..." And we use fancy terms like automacy, and we talk about things like critical thinking skills, and we talk about stuff like working memory and all this stuff as if that's where the problem is. But actually, when you look at systems, education systems that work really well, the key word there is the system works really well, right?
And then when you look at education systems that don't work really well, it's the system that doesn't work really well. So, when education fails in a nation, it's systemic. It's not the teachers, and it's rarely the content or the mechanism for teaching, although all those things are important and they have a factor. The system's not set up for success. So that means that the metrics are wrong, the emphasis is maybe too much on testing or not enough on testing, or those things, or the system's not set up to perpetually change, whatever the case may be. Is Adam gone?
No. Adam's here thinking. I'm pondering. I took on a pose of utter consideration.
Yeah, well now you're frozen on my screen again. So, I'm like, "Oh, we lost Adam."
No, it's not around that. I think... I find this fascinating and I agree about the system and stuff. And I was thinking, "What is it, that it's the heart of it that makes me react in a certain way?" So when I hear about, I don't know, curriculum change, it makes me think... Curriculum change in of itself is not a problem, right, because there's always going to be something better, and our curriculum does have to change as society changes, the needs and all those sorts of things. So that, in terms of just curriculum change, that's going to happen. It's an inevitability. So, why is it possible to have this reaction? And I'm thinking, "What's at the heart of it?" And I guess, part of it is, is that I don't think that when I was working in schools full time, I understood the process of curriculum change.
It was simply, "Here it is, this is the draught document that's got to be in place in two years in its entirety." But then the talk around the traps, if you like, was get it in earlier because Ofsted are probably going to be looking at it. And that was kind of, I didn't know how it was arrived at. Now, fortunately, Andy, you were kind of in a sanctum, I think, and so I've got to learn about some of the process and conversations and those sorts of things. But I was thinking, yes, I do understand that sometimes it's put out to consultation, so there's a chance to react to the Department for Education. I just wonder if the trust part of it comes in, is the transparency around how decisions are come to. And if I'm listening to different people who may have an influence on the curriculum, how do these things, how do we arrive at that?
And I think that, you know a document that I'd love to have is the story, literally, a narrative, written, very easy to read, this is how we arrive at the curriculum. Just so I knew how a system that has such a massive impact on me is arrived at because I think that's the thing that we don't get to see. We don't get to listen to the people who were involved in it. And I'd love that. I mean, listen, I know it's not for general audience, but if there was a documentary on, "This is how we got to the curriculum," and people were filmed almost like some sort of reality show, I would be absolutely-
Be really boring reality show.
... intrigued by that. Well, yeah but it would capture... You know what I'm saying.? I would be really interested to know that because then it might help the reaction when, if we talk about curriculum change, if we talk about a new political party coming in and changing policies, education policies that are going to have such a big impact, I would really like to know how that unfolds. I think part of it's a trust thing.
Yeah. So, what do I wish the government would work on, right? So first of all, should the curriculum change? It should constantly change, right? I think that you can't argue that shouldn't. That's a nonsense argument to me. The world changes rapidly. The curriculum should be in response to what the needs of what we believe, to our best abilities, the necessities are of society, right? And it should be in perpetual change. So the question is, how should that change happen? What's the system that you're going to put in place so that this change isn't just hugely disruptive and painful for everyone, but that becomes part of the culture? That's what the government should be working on, is putting the system in place to make sure that the change can constantly happen without throwing everything out and making everyone panic all the time. It's like this pendulum swing thing. We shouldn't be like, "Oh, it was mastery, now it's whatever." Right?
And then we have to change everything. We used to use levels, now we use this other thing. It shouldn't happen like that. It should be perpetual. It should be slow, gradual, persistent improvement all the time. Yes, there are always going to be areas where there's big chunks that you have to deal with. It's kind of like fiscal responsibility or with the government, they put out a budget every once in a while and there's big changes and everyone has to respond to it. Maybe they change tax laws or something, right? But the issue isn't the curriculum as per se. It isn't like, "Oh, should you teach fractions?" You start teaching fractions in year one or should you start teaching fractions in year three? You know what, it doesn't really matter, as long as when you go to teach fractions, you do it properly. Right? That's a given. But we fixate on those things.
We fixate on like, "Oh, we need more spatial awareness, but we should start it earlier." Well, just because you want people to get out of elementary school or primary school being more, let's say, competent in spatial awareness, doesn't necessarily mean you need to introduce it earlier. What it means is you need to do it properly when you do it. And that really should be up to the experts as to what's the best way to do it, right? The politicians shouldn't really be meddling with that bit too much. What they should be meddling with is how can we create a system between inspectors, schools, assessment, all the requirements of assessment? What does it mean for getting out of secondary school and going to university? How do we create a system that works that has inherently, was part of it, this perpetual change, and improvement cycles built in so that it's not a shock to the system.
There are countries who do it really well already. We tend to not do that though because it's too political. What we tend to do is, political parties, there's always two things that are big in social democratic societies: healthcare and education. They're the two big things, always. This is where most of the money is spent and it's always hugely politically charged, right? So, new party comes in and they feel they need to make radical policies and promises and stuff about healthcare and education so that they get voted in, and then, hence the system gets manipulated by this top-down kind of structure.
So, if a new party wants to come in, they're going to say, "We're going to change this, we're going to reform this, we're going to do blah, blah, blah, blah, blah." Hopefully that resonates with more people, and then things get changed. Not often or not usually for the better. Systems that work really well tends to not be so politicised, right? People within the system agree that this is how we should be teaching, and then they work together. There may be small differences, but they tend to work together towards a common goal. I think at the heart, that's kind of the problem, right, with education system in many countries, England and Canada and the United States being prime examples of that, right? They get stuck in this kind of pendulum swing education thing.
So, how do we change that? Because obviously, if a new party comes in, they're never going to say, "Oh, everything's perfect the way it is. We're not going to change a thing. We're just going to keep on keeping on."
Yeah. The answer's easy, actually, I think. The government should stop meddling with the pedagogy and the content in the curriculum, and trust that the Department for Education, let's say, can handle that, with a group of experts advising it, a wide group of experts. And the government should focus on the system, making the system work. Making sure that there aren't conflicting interests and agendas within the education system. That whether it's like Ofsted, the inspectors, or Ofqual or whoever it is, that the assessments are linked to the inspections and that the curriculum is aligned, and people are not chasing each other. That the system itself works, right? And stay out of the pedagogy and stay out of the classroom, and work on the system, is what I guess what I'm trying to say.
I think that to happen though, Andy, and this is something that I would love, this would be music to my ears, but the problem is that it's not a single vote that can be given for it as if you had cross party agreement that there was going to be an understanding that the approach to education was, as you've described, informed by the right people, and the parties were agreed that this is the system for both parties. This is the way that education gets evaluated, reformed, supported in its implementation, all of those sorts of things. But it's almost like, well, any sort of, if you like, political truce. If someone's feeling a bit like, "We're not going to win this. I know what we'll do. We'll tell everyone that the children aren't learning and we can get them to learn. That guarantees us the votes to get us over the line."
It's almost like that, because I think that if we had a sort of cross-party willingness to genuinely say, "This is going to be the plan for the next 20 years, 30 years, this is going to be the system of reform, evaluation, implementation, support, those sorts of things, that, man, imagine that. Imagine that. Rather than, "Do you remember the day when you were good at times tables? And that's really important. And those are the good old days, man, and that's what we are going to get back to. So, if you vote for us, we are going to have a society that can multiply 7 and 12." Right? Oh, give me strength. You know what I mean?
Well done. Well done.
Yeah. Thank God society is still intact.
I would've failed the multiplication test. Took too long.
And if you had done, society would've crumbled, right? You would've all of a sudden been a meaningless member of society if you hadn't have done that. And yes, it's dripping with cynicism, but the decisions that are being made, I don't think it's too much to ask for, but I guess the temptation of using something, like you said, as an emotional, as healthcare and education, is too great. Because if we look at these systems, if we look at the systems that anyone, anyone in politics who is the current minister for education will refer to these high-performing systems, one of the things that you see that's almost a constant amongst all of them is incremental change over time and evaluation, and slow reform.
Yet, that part seems to be missed out of it. It's like, "Well, we'll grab this bit and this bit and this bit, and we'll talk about these bits, but guarantee if we've got an election next year, man, we're going to throw some headlines at you that fly in the face of these things." And you just think, "Oh."
I know. I know. And the thing is that we end up talking about the most trivial stuff that's not important. Well, it's not that it's not important, but it's like, in the grand scheme of things, people start talking about education, it's the same stuff that they talk about. There's obsession with four or five topics, number facts, in particular multiplication always comes up with the press or the government. Why are we talking about this again? We stopped talking... Yeah. Do we want kids to know their multiplication tracks? Yes, we do. Okay, let's stop talking about it, right?
Do we have to talk about... In no other profession would this get discussed, but only because people kind of, it's always about primary mathematics usually because they kind of remember their own experiences and try to touch it. You would never say, because let's imagine we have huge problems in the healthcare system as well. You would never start talking about, should a, I don't know, surgeon, be using a clamp type A or clamp type C when performing this procedure? There's no way the government would ever be talking about that. Right? What a ludicrous idea for them to talk.
Why are they talking about what's happening in the classroom? It's just as stupid. They're so detached from what happens in the classroom, just like they're detached from what happens in the operating theatre. It's just dumb, right? But no, we feel like we need to talk about it, and it's just insane. And we don't talk about the elephant in the room, which is the system doesn't work, and the system has lots of false incentives. We waste tremendous amounts of effort and money with that, and spend our time talking about things that, really, in the grand scheme of things are not really that important.
Yeah, totally. And I think, Robin, it's difficult because it would be nice to say, "We'll just vote for it." But then, that's polarising in itself because it's kind of like, "All right, well, I like this aspect of what they're saying about maths, or this aspect." And you could probably find an argument within bits and pieces of both the policies and manifestos that relate to education. But ultimately, it's kind of, I don't know, I'd just like someone to be brave and acknowledge the fact that one of the things that, when things work, it's usually because they are changed incrementally. After a round of evaluation, you're identifying what's working, and you make incremental changes, keeping the parts that work. Keeping the elements that work, building on them and making those bits even better. And yet, that's too much... Yeah.
And education and healthcare seems easy enough to do. You don't see these kind of same reforms or people getting stuck into the, say, the legal system in the same way that would be handed over. I just think there's a certain aspect of it that seems like this is fair game, and I can feel qualified enough either as a parent or just a politician to make great sweeping statements about education policy, simply because I've been at school, or I'm related to a teacher, or my next door neighbour is the head of department at a high school. And I just think there's other professions, there's other things that go on that they say... Is someone going to make sweeping policy statements about being a pilot and how to fly a plane? I can't imagine that's going to be high on the agenda, even though a lot of people travel, because it's not. They'll say, "Oh no, I don't know what to say about that."
And if I start talking about it, people just go, "What do you know about flying a plane?" Well, yeah, you've been in one. Well, is that not the equivalent of being at school? Exactly. And so, why? And it comes back to the emotive bit and all those sorts of things. But, I don't know. I think it's really tricky. I don't know, and I'd love to know if any listeners have got a suggestion. How do you get cross party agreement that says this is acting in the best interest of our kids, of our society, the economics, the health, all of those things that we know the benefits come from? I don't know.
Well, it's working. It's working in some countries, right? Some countries are very aligned, and they're very different countries too, and they work in different ways. And when you talk about successful education systems, Finland often comes up, right? And they seem to know what it is that they're trying to do, right? And they seem to agree, not only as in a political system, but also as a nation. They tend to agree what's important and what's not important, and it works. And this is a community of people working together to move in the same direction. And they're a pretty socialist country from what I understand. Then you look at another country that's really successful like Singapore. Not really a socialist country by any measure, by most people's measures. It's not a social democracy really, and it's worked in there too. And why is it work in both? There's very, very different political systems, and both of those systems seem to work really well.
So, there's lots of cases where it works, but there has to be a will. I think the issue is, in countries like the UK, Canada, the United States, it's so politically charged. It's such a big part of spending, and it's such a big part of the platform, the electoral platform, that it's kind of hard to see how that's going to change without changing big political systems. I don't know. I don't know. But if they could wrap their head around working together and focus on the system as opposed to focusing on the things that don't matter, or not the things that don't matter, things that they shouldn't be focusing on, I think there'll be a chance.
One thing, just a kind of closing thing too, is I think people need to also be a lot more open-minded in education. I'm always stunned at how absolutist people are. It's like, "No, no, it's got to be..." Whatever the buzzword is. It's mastery or it's discovery or it's direct instruction, or it's about lining kids up in rows or it's about putting kids on... Just be a little open-minded that there's maybe more than one way to teach, and sometimes one works better than the other and whatever. And stop being so absolutist about it.
It's almost like different religious affiliations. You either believe in this or you believe in that, and all the rest of them are heathens. We've got to stop thinking like that and just listen to each other a little bit more, try to work together, right? So hostile. So hostile.
Thank you for joining us on The School of School Podcast.