More is better.
This is a prolific belief in humanity. It serves a purpose.
The drive for more has seen human endeavour push itself to exciting places, far beyond the realms and limits of possibility.
In education, this principle underpins many approaches to teaching and learning, reflected in pedagogical habits and principles of learning institutions around the globe.
It is manifested in the long held and prevalent notion of content as king. This is the oft- mentioned ‘rigour’ of education, dividing excellent institutions from the rest.
The COVID-19 lockdown offers an opportunity to reflect on many principles we hold true, almost without question. As discussed before, perhaps this experience, for educators and education, might offer a once in a lifetime opportunity to examine some sacred cow principles to see if they still fit.
It is an opportunity to reflect on and explore some of our principles and stress test them for a modern age.
Two books have pushed me in this direction. One, Ray Dalio’s Principles, records his principles for work and life, tested and refined across more than thirty years of building an investment house from scratch.
His example suggests you define your guiding principles and publish them, refining and developing as you go to maximise clarity of purpose and action in any situation.
The other is Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think, by Hans Rosling et al. One aspect of his book that sticks in my mind is the assertion that many modern views and opinions are based on the data and reality of the world thirty or forty years ago.
This series will explore some enduring principles of education according to my observation. It will allow us to eyeball some of the sacred cows and principles we hold true and test their validity.
Once, a job interviewer asked how I would ensure rigour in my teaching practice.
This common question is designed to sort the squirmers from candidates who think on their feet.
Stuck, uncertain of the answer, my instinct was to meet a question with a question. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘how do you define rigour?’
They struggled to answer, and I did not get the job. The best they could manage was to blunder about curriculum coverage and ensuring students did the work.
Which highlights how ‘rigour’ in education is automatically trotted out as standard but is, in reality, ineffable to many.
In the main, rigour is shorthand for content.
For too long, good teaching has been defined as the amount of work set and completed by teachers and students. A rigorous curriculum covered a lot of ground, meaning students knew more, meaning they were better learners.
Of course, this rigorous curriculum invariably led to a high stakes summative assessment. This ‘Grand Final’ of recall and memory measures and sorts learners into categories, which in turn opens or closes the vocational pathways required by society.
Which was really the hidden purpose. This model makes education the equivalent of the Hogwarts sorting hat.
Is this a pathway to deep learning? Does it develop the right dispositions and habits for lifelong learning?
Maybe not… but it meets societal needs, albeit with a flaw. At the heart of the learning was simple consumption.
It was a one way system. Teachers filled themselves up with knowledge and then passed it on to students, filling the tabula rasa.
‘Better’ institutions fostered compliant cultures where more content could be covered and more consumption occurred.
This, I argue, is where you find that rigour the interviewer asked about.
A reliable and effective educator got through the curriculum, kept up with the marking and knew the content.
A good student did all their work, memorised the content and could recall and apply it to a high stakes summative assessment.
It was mutually beneficial. Everyone went home feeling like a solid day’s learning occurred. It was, and is, exhausting in many ways, but not very dynamic. You could get away with rinsing and repeating.
It may be an idea whose time has come. Indeed, there may even be a moral component to resolving this issue.
Is it ethical and moral to prepare students for life beyond school using an outdates industrial model that values consumption and compliance over everything else?
Is it ethical to not at least challenge this model since we are no longer delivering students to the vocational certainties that once existed?
Might it be contributing to higher levels of anxiety and depression amongst young people?
The paradox is, current educational research and best practice tells is that ‘coverage’ of curriculum content is far from optimal in terms of education and deep learning.
The 21st century learning model speaks to that (despite being badly named) . Good learners need to be lifelong. They must be flexible enough to adjust and pivot to new experiences. Many vocations and jobs now require near perpetual learning and training.
The what is not as important as the why and how. Yet we still peddle a consumption model of learning that focuses on memorising and short term performance.
The purpose of learning, then, should not simply be sorting our students into groups. It should also equip them with the ability and dispositions to transfer knowledge and skills.
This requires more than passive consumption – it requires agency.
One common issue in education, a barrier to progress in many cases, is time. Teachers consistently say that the greatest use of time is covering the curriculum and getting through the content.
It seems logical, then, to reduce content.
This talk is cheap unless we also evaluate and challenge our attitudes to what constitutes rigour.
Teaching should not just be a series of activities set by teachers and consumed by students. We need to leave time and space for deep learning.
This is a real challenge in modern education, but perhaps in the current climate, where we are forced to strip back the volume of content, we might learn that volume of content does not and should not equate to rigour.
In fact the opposite – it leads to highly able consumers of information who lack the critical skills to act on the wealth of information available.
To paraphrase Tim Ferriss, if you optimize for outcome you get paid once. If you optimize the process, you get paid again and again.
The volume of content does not equal rigour. Time to change the tune.