Posted by: mrlock | June 24, 2013

Klaxon during Claxton – ’21st Century Skills’ alert!

The next session at the Festival of Education, the 5th that I attended, was Daisy Christodoulou, Jan Hodges and Guy Claxton on “What is the Future for Schools?”

I was looking forward to this session more than any other. Mainly because I’ve just read Daisy’s book The Seven Myths of Education and agree with her destruction of each of these myths, and I disagree with the stuff Claxton promotes. Claxton’s promotion of “Building Learning Power” is fundamentally at odds with the stuff I’ve been reading over the last few months, particularly from cognitive scientist Daniel T Willingham and on many blogs. Well that’s not true of everything I’m reading, but it’s true on everything I’m agreeing with.

I wanted to hear a real gladiatorial type of argument that challenged some of the applause that I had heard Claxton receive earlier.

Daisy said that she is optimistic. Her reasons for being optimistic refer to the existence of TeachFirst and the Education Endowment Foundation.

Daisy said she has three wishes. She would like to see teacher training get an understanding of cognitive science. In particular by this she was referring to the limitations of working memory and the capacity of long term memory.

Second, Daisy said she would like education to move on from “sterile debates about school structures” and hence focus on what is happening in the classroom. Successive governments have focussed on Academies, Free Schools, models of governance and so on. Daisy said she wanted, as a result of the focus on the classroom (the place that really makes a difference) a greater recognition of knowledge and the importance of practice for mastery.

This is exactly the message that I have been challenged with over the last two years. And exactly the reason I have utterly changed my view on education. In fact, several years ago I would have been happy to welcome Claxton to my school (at a lot of money!) to give us direction with anything that will sort us out!

Anyway, back to Daisy. Her third plea/ request/ wish was that new ideas that are introduced to education have a stronger evidence base than they seem to have at the moment. Daisy pointed out that new ideas are introduced daily on basis of philosophical support rather than evidence based support.

I couldn’t agree more.

Jan Hodges then spoke and said that (amongst other things) project based learning is important. An example of such a project is, she said, “Design a part for a new engine”. Jan also said that the education system is failing and we have skill gaps, and referred to the shortage of graduates in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. She went on to say that we already have lots of Humanities graduates and we don’t need loads more.

Guy Claxton started by saying he agrees with Jan and Daisy!

I just wrote “What?” I genuinely don’t understand how he can agree with people taking opposite positions.

Claxton then went on to say that there is a need for a moral aspect to education. He explained that the valued residues of education are all couched in terms of qualities of character.

He went on to promote 21st century skills (I wrote down “Klaxon”) and key competencies and reported that this “requires a moral conversation”. He followed this by saying that it is astounding (in a bad way) that in the National Curriculum there is no statement of what education is for. Claxton says that as a result we hence and by default we value high levels of examination achievement.

I was just thinking “what’s a 21st century skill that didn’t exist in the 20th century?” and a million other questions about these 21st century skill. I asked a colleague at another school this question very recently after they mentioned the same phrase and the answer was “googling”. I am not joking.

Claxton continued: “We try to finesse the moral discourse, as if world class or excellent meant something – as if rigour and standards are set.” Claxton is encouraging a conversation about “what sort of moral people we want to produce”. Unless we have this, he continued, we are rearranging around the deckchairs. A part of this shift will be a change in the way we think about intelligence. A lot of what we’re focussing on it a dangerous distraction from what we have if we want all schools to prepare students for life not just university.

Claxton got a fair smattering of applause and I considered that I really don’t know what he is promoting. The rhetoric is appealing, but I genuinely don’t understand the substance and it all sounds  implausible.

I actually laughed when Sir Cyril Taylor was asked to speak and promoted his book and said he believes in different schools for different students. He went on to say broadly the same thing that he said in the previous session.

Jan kept coming back to Project Based Learning as if this makes everything OK.

Guy Claxton said that politicians are terrified of moral discourse, not interested in things that are complex, not interested in things that take longer than a parliamentary cycle. Some of this might be true. I just don’t agree with the conclusions he takes

Claxton really loses me (as in I can’t take him seriously) though when he started talking about schools having a conversation with parents, staff, governors and the community about what sort of people they want their students to become. He continued to say that the aims of education need exploring in order that we have a curriculum fit for the purpose of those aims.

Now, first I think the aims of education are to help individuals get educated in order to assist them with their aims. That’s about it. I do agree with what Tony Benn once said when he said that people should be educated so that they can be educated. It is an end in itself.

Second though loads of schools did this exploring during the course of the last government. Mick Waters (then of QCA) fronted a video that many schools showed their staff that said schools were free to develop their curriculum. It directed schools to work out their aims.

Specifically it was suggested schools should answer the following questions:

1)    “What are you trying to achieve?”

2)    “How will you organise learning?”

3)    “How will you know when you are achieving your aims?”

There were loads of resources schools could use for these. I’m really embarrassed that I remember getting my colleagues to draw stick men. We then listed values we wanted for our students near the heart. We listed skills near the hands. We listed knowledge near the head.

This was all a convoluted way of winning the knowledge v skills argument (in favour of skills) and promoting the Personal, Learning and Thinking Skills (and I was on a working group with QCA that worked on ways of developing PLTS). You can easily find the resources that QCA produced to reinforce this exploration of the aims of education by googling. They’re here, for example. I saw many schools present their work on PLTS at many conferences, so none of this went without heed.

Anyway, I digress.

The way the debate was set up was difficult for Daisy to challenge this – it really wasn’t much of an actual debate. I drifted off a little bit thinking about QCA and Mick Waters and thinking I should point this out. But what question would I ask in trying to make that point? Anyway, there was then a great question asked. The question was about how we achieve these aims?

Daisy spoke about the curriculum in Singapore and New Zealand where there is set out a very detailed way of achieving these. There is a very clear way of getting there and content and knowledge are very important. Claxton didn’t agree that the content was important and there was a bit of debate to finish, but I had stopped writing because I was laughing when Claxton said that he wasn’t going to answer another question directly because he didn’t have a ready made answer. Now this might seem reasonable, but Claxton had previously said that we should be preparing students to be able to think on their feet, for example when an Oxbridge professor asks a question students haven’t prepared for. The chair of the meeting suggested that Claxton might want to indeed think on his feet. Claxton scolded him and said that thinking on one’s feet is not the same as being glib. I was still laughing.

I later met Daisy, who I’d had the pleasure of seeing present on the teaching of grammar at a previous conference. We are very likely to have discrete grammar lessons at our school next year – partly as a direct result of this session. Though I didn’t speak to her for long she was warm and happy to chat, and I’ll be writing to her at the Curriculum Centre because she’s becoming an important resource in developing our school.

For criticism of Building Learning Power as Snake Oil, click on OldAndrew’s blog here.

For my previous Festival of Education blogs see Blog 1 (Sir MichaelWilshaw), Blog 2 (mainly Steve Munby), Blog 3 (David Laws).



  1. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.


  2. I read this and thought I’d have a go at explaining 21st century skills from am employer’s perspective.


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