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Rt Hon Nick Gibb MP speaks at ResearchED National Conference.

Rt Hon Nick Gibb MP speaks at ResearchED National Conference.

Thank you.

It is a pleasure to be back at the ResearchED National Conference once again. This teacher-led movement for a better understanding and use of evidence in education continues to go from strength to strength, and from country to country and also from continent to continent.

From Scandanavia to South Africa, Australia to North America, ResearchED is a global movement of teachers seizing back control of their profession.

And wherever conferences are held, it is the plurality of voices afforded a platform that defines ResearchED. Today, for example, attendees face the unenviable task of selecting between sessions. From Ben White’s evidence about reducing teacher workload and improving retention, to Cat Scutt’s whistle-stop summary of the evidence for what makes a highly effective teacher.

Today – as with all ResearchED conferences – teachers will share the stage with world-leading academics at the cutting edge of their field. Teacher, PhD student and prolific-blogger Greg Ashman, who has flown in from Australia, will be taking a challenging look at the practice of differentiation. Professor Becky Francis will be discussing issues of equity in the context of the Institute for Education’s work on ability grouping.

Stephen Tierney – Chair of the Headteachers’ Round Table – will be sharing his experience of building an evidence-informed school. And Mark Lehain – Director of the New Schools Network and Parents and Teachers for Excellence – will be sharing his expertise on implementing a knowledge rich curriculum. And Professor Daniel Muijs will be sharing the extensive work that Ofsted has been doing on how to improve the validity and reliability of school inspections.

The diversity of viewpoints and research interests means that ResearchED lends evidence-informed and nuanced voices to the great debates of education.

One such debate is the ‘knowledge vs skills’ debate. This important debate is decades old, but – somewhat paradoxically – as our understanding of how children learn has improved, the debate has become more polarised.

There is no doubt that in our ever more globalised world, one of the key purposes of education is to prepare the next generation to thrive in the 21st century. We must ensure that pupils are equipped with both powerful knowledge and the skills needed for this century.

And yet, the new technologies and seemingly ever changing world of the new millennium – now commonly referred to as the ‘4th Industrial Revolution’ – shouldn’t be an excuse to give way to romantic notions that education needs overhauling.

All around the world, the desire to react to the unprecedented pace of technological change has led to many experts and commentators proclaiming knowledge-rich education redundant. Here is one example from a commentator in the Guardian:

‘In the future, if you want a job, you must be as unlike a machine as possible: creative, critical and socially skilled. So why are children being taught to behave like machines? Children learn best when teaching aligns with their natural exuberance, energy and curiosity. So why are they dragooned into rows and made to sit still while they are stuffed with facts?’

George Monbiot went on to repeat the trope, comparing schools to factories:

‘Our schools were designed to produce the workforce required by 19th-century factories. The desired product was workers who would sit silently at their benches all day, behaving identically, to produce identical products, submitting to punishment if they failed to achieve the requisite standards. Collaboration and critical thinking were just what the factory owners wished to discourage.’

Sir Ken Robinson is possibly the most famous modern proponent of this critique of schools, which – in his view – too often fail to prepare children for the world of today because of their rigidity, traditional focus on knowledge and discrete subjects and their standardised approach. But the image of children as passive recipients of education is actually centuries old, with its roots in the romantic Rousseauian notion that:

‘Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains.’

There is concern that the type of education provided by schools will not only fail to prepare children for the future, but will actively hinder their chances of thriving in the 21st century. The words of Jean Jacques Rousseau echo through the writing of Sir Ken Robinson when he wrote:

‘We are all born with extraordinary powers of imagination, intelligence, feeling, intuition, spirituality, and of physical and sensory awareness.’

Implicitly – but powerfully – these statements provide the emotional underpinning for centuries of opposition to schooling that prioritises powerful knowledge being passed from subject-expert teachers to novice pupils.

Sir Ken Robinson makes this argument explicit in his proposals for the future of schooling:

‘The world is changing faster than ever in our history. Our best hope for the future is to develop a new paradigm of human capacity to meet a new era of human existence. We need to evolve a new appreciation of the importance of nurturing human talent along with an understanding of how talent expresses itself differently in every individual.’

But – just as with the romantic notion underlying these arguments – the idea that education must change to equip children to cope with the future is not new either. At international education conferences and in newspaper columns, it is not uncommon to hear the following argument advanced:

‘We find ourselves in a rapidly changing and unpredictable culture. It seems almost impossible to foresee the particular ways in which it will change in the near future or the particular problems which will be paramount in five or ten years. Under these conditions, much emphasis must be placed in the schools on the development of generalized ways of attacking problems and on knowledge which can be applied to a wide range of new situations.’

Please read the whole speech.





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