My entry today comes with 2 objectives:
- To explain why I love the 2014 National Curriculum.
- To explain why Assessment Without Levels is the best thing that could have ever happened.
The previous curriculum was built around cycles of objectives that got continuously harder before the year had finished. For those able to keep up, it was great; the challenge was always there, pre-set. However, for those who struggled with the previous objective, whether you understood or not, you were pushed to move on. Common sense will tell you that the teacher would keep track of everyone's success, able to tailor the lesson as best as they could so everyone was stretched. This includes every best effort to organise timely intervention. However, the awful levels culture skewed this ideology somewhat. In a world fuelled by numbers, practitioners and their school leaders found themselves in a wicked game to create the illusion of success, by having your numbers as high as possible, to be superficially judged by those the other side of the gate.
This was a 2 fold problem:
- The first fold left those who were already struggling even further behind. In order to get the highest 'levels', more time and energy was used for those who stood a better chance of getting a higher mark. The most efficient and qualified resources were used to push and push, while those who required the best support to meet the earliest stages were left to flounder.
- The second fold pushed those borderline children over an edge they were not ready for; they had started to get to grips with the criteria to earn them the previous level, but were forced to 'understand' the next set of objectives too early, leaving them with an insecure knowledge of both sets.
The results of this were self explanatory; the gaps among the learners got wider, and many were left behind when others were forced on, while other groups were left unprepared for the next year because they were never given the time to fully understand all of the learning they had just skimmed (but were able to scrape together the satisfactory amount of evidence in order to be judged as the 'higher' band on a single occasion, likely encompassing a heavy amount of modelling and very little independence).
Grossly unfair on all counts, and completely impractical as they continue through the education process.
The 2014 National Curriculum is our chance to rebalance our classrooms and provide support for those who need it most, while also providing open ended application for those who relish a challenge.
Rather than needing to understand a concept in 2 days, before revisiting it, at a harder level, in 3 months time, we now have a set of objectives that you have a year to engage with and understand; emerge into, and aim to master. For the first time in my career, I have a curriculum encouraging the use of manipulatives and imagery to enable the children to build up a bank of practical experiences to help them solve problems. Yes, there are a lot of objectives, but through your Assessment For Learning, you can decide which ones require the most time allocation (made easier because the objectives stay the same).
Rather than pushing your children through a set of criteria to reach the highest number as quickly as possible, we now have a system that encourages them to stay within their set of criteria, but experiment with the application of everything they have learnt during that time; depth, not breadth.
This is likely the part many teachers are finding the most difficult; it's the biggest difference between the 2 curriculums, and therefore ignites the most fear. Whereas, before, you would steam through adding and subtracting 3 digit numbers, up to 4 digits, to money, through to decimals, we are now being asked to provide other challenges that stay with the 3 digit numbers; word problems, number puzzles, proving/disproving statements, investigations, missing digit problems, using the inverse, etc. The fear is visual; "you're still doing 3 digit numbers", so where's the progress? Simple. The progress comes from the complexity and level of understanding required to complete a problem successfully; much more beneficial in the long term, compared to, "Now try this 4 digit number."
Why? The new system is about checking understanding. Really, if you've understood the place value behind adding and subtracting, and how to use the columns in a written method, you'll be successful regardless of how big the number is, so the only thing you were stretching was the question! Now you can provide opportunities to apply the learning, and you don't need to touch the next set of objectives in order to do that; touching the next year group's objectives isn't a signal of attainment.
The successes of this are also 2 fold:
- The first fold is that, because the objectives remain the same for everyone, the gap doesn't get wider as rapidly. I would be silly to write that everyone can keep up with the new system, especially in its infancy, but it certainly does give everyone a better chance at succeeding, because the targets remain the same for a longer period of time. For this reason, we have time to understand, aiming to leave us with a more secure ground on which to build the next year.
- The second fold is likely the toughest to understand; "what about the most able?" With no 'levels' to race through and a clear message to 'stay within your objectives', there is a childish fear (fuelled by the foolish notion of rocketing through increasingly difficult concepts, creating a false idea of success), that there is no longer any challenge! To use my previous example, whereas the extension to adding 3 digits, was to add 4 digits, now it's to see to what extent you can APPLY adding 3 digits (including supervised explanation to ones who find it trickier, further strengthening your own learning, while potentially helping to close the gap between you and your partner, by using a mutually recognised verbal register); surely a better use of time and more specific judgement of what you've actually learnt?
While it's had some teething problems, I am a firm believer in the 2014 National Curriculum and the Assessment changes it has brought along with it. It will just take time. The problem is not the new curriculum or the 'standards' it is written with, but the expectation that pupils, who have only just completed a year of the new system, will be able to be fairly assessed on an order of events they haven't partaken in, within a wider community of schools and their families who haven't had a chance to catch up with the new system in a mutually understood language - we are not even convinced those who wrote the system fully understand it!
Teachers, calm down; you're clouding yourselves. We are conditioned to respond to criticism and jump through hoops to achieve criteria we spent years learning. Now that the criteria is different, we panic because know the same critics will come, expecting to see the same professional practice with little REAL time to adjust. Use this chance to work together to create a system that works for you; a system you'll be able to confidently explain to a critic.
Critics, please don't touch the curriculum for at least 6 years. Give it time to filter through, for at least one cohort to get through the whole process. Let us make sense of it; we are more qualified than you.
It is our job to make the most of what we are given, to equip these children for the rest of their lives. A daunting prospect when led by a less-qualified, higher power with a more numerical aim, but we can do it!