Laura Kirsop, former teacher and ICT coordinator, is the Product Manager at FutureLearn, a high-quality online education provider that offers free courses from universities and specialist organizations.
Are schools teaching the skills students need?
No, I don’t think that schools currently prepare children for the twenty-first century. We have an education system that has remained largely unchanged for over a hundred years. In some places the schools are allowed to be innovative as they’re free from bureaucracy or government oversight. Those schools can be quite free, experimental, innovative and do some interesting things.
On the whole though, due to such high regulation in this country from the government and Ofsted, schools feel like they don’t have the freedom to try new things and largely they play it very safe. So they stick to fairly formal teaching of mathematics and English without really feeling like they can explore other ways of teaching or teach other things.
What is the role of the teacher?
I think that in the UK, we’ve seen the role of the teacher gradually shifting, because things like assessment for lifelong learning have meant that teachers have realized that teaching isn’t about imparting knowledge. There’s a lot more peer-to-peer teaching with the teacher as the guide rather than as the sage on stage.
So I think it is changing in the UK, but possibly not fast enough. I would like to see teachers have the confidence to put their children in charge of their own learning and to really tailor what they’re doing in the classroom to the needs of the children.
What are key challenges with or for teachers?
As a teacher that loves teaching I am very aware of the things that have made my life quite difficult and generally it was that there wasn’t a sense that you were trusted to get on with your job. As a teacher you are very highly regulated, you are constantly observed and graded. The work you do, the planning and the children’s work is highly scrutinized.
So, I think that teachers don’t feel that they have the trust from their leaders and from the government to get on with their job, to trust what they know to be right and to make decisions by themselves. So they spend a lot of time doing things that actually don’t help them or their students. They’re ticking boxes or proving that they’re doing something for other people’s benefit, when they should be spending time in the creative process of planning, teaching and assessing. If we started trusting our teachers and let them get on with their jobs, I think that would create a big change in education in the UK. I think that we would see a huge benefit from that.
For one thing, we would reduce the teacher turnover, a lot of teachers in this country don’t even make it to five years. The lessons that they’re delivering and the atmosphere that they are creating in their classes would be very different if they were given more freedom.
What should we change in testing?
Testing is another thing that is subject to different political whims. In this country we’re now going through a process of coursework becoming less popular and being removed, and exams being the be-all and end-all and what you eventually receive your final grade on.
I think that we have to find a balance that works for everybody, because not all children are good at exams and not all children are good at coursework, so the ideal would be a blended approach where you can get credits from different types of assessment. I think that in this country the exam boards and the tests that the children have at the end create a culture of teaching for the examinations, rather than teaching for the sake of the learning or the subject the teacher is passionate about.
Teachers spend quite a lot of time drilling children to take tests which is arguably not a good use of their time. It doesn’t build the kinds of skills and knowledge that we want to encourage in children so that they are fit for entering the world in the twenty-first century.
What are the challenges in a traditional classroom setting?
In the UK a lot of our schools were built in the Victorian era. We still have a lot of schools that are four or five stories high, all the classrooms are square-shaped and each year group and each class is in a different room, so the physical environment is actually very limiting.
We’ve seen in this country a lot of really interesting uses of space in new schools. I really like schools where they open out directly onto the playground and there’s free movement so children can learn outside and inside, it’s a lot easier to move the children around and get them from A to B.
As a teacher you spend a considerable amount of your time taking your children from one place to another and in a Victorian school, or a more traditional school, they end up having to be in a line and in silence and you have to march them around everywhere almost army-like or prison-like. Whereas if you create spaces that are more flexible where it’s easier to get from A to B, it makes a huge difference to the way that your classes spend their day, their happiness overall and the way that you use the space.
We’ve obviously also got the issue of a lot of schools not being fit for purpose technologically. In the UK most schools are only just getting there with wi-fi and things like that. We have to make a lot of investment in terms of the infrastructure that we have in schools to support digital learning. There’s endless tales of schools that I’ve been to where the wi-fi will drop as you put five children onto the internet, so we really do need to invest in those systems. In the workplace they’re normal now, so it doesn’t make sense that in a school we should still be working in an old-fashioned manner.
The majority of children are used to having very high quality experiences at home with technology. It’s very common for houses to have lots of different devices, wi-fi of good quality and increasingly making things at home using different types of hardware, but often the situation at school doesn’t match up to what they’re experiencing at home. Their experiences of computers at home is whipping out an iPad and just doing what they like on it but at school it’s going into a special room and then struggling to log onto an old computer and then getting very frustrated. We need to bring it up so that the schools match the workplaces and the homes. That’s the very first step.
What role do you think government should play in education?
The role of the government in education is something that’s traditionally a cause of great conflict in the UK. Teachers in schools are at the whims of the party that’s elected at the time, so you have a great deal of things changing after four or five years. And things go around in cycles, you’ll have a Conservative government who prefer this style of teaching and this way of doing things, so they’ll introduce some measures, and then the Labour government will get in and take them away and introduce other things. As a result teachers feel quite disempowered. They are very good at adapting to change, in getting upskilled to keep up with new initiatives and working with new curriculums.
It would just be fantastic if teachers in schools were allowed to professionalize on their own terms. I think that things like the Council For Teaching should have more of a say, and be able to say ‘this is what we know to be best practice in schools through research’ and that isn’t a political thing that can change on a whim. It needs to be more sustained over longer periods of time and based on research and practice. The government doesn’t seem to take that into account, they’ll introduce things that on the whole the teachers will know is not best practice, from their own teaching practice, but also from research that has been conducted over the last several decades.
The government should be looking at that research and listening to teachers more. Ultimately, I feel there needs to be a way for teachers to professionalize, to create a more sustainable way of doing things that is less subject to government whims.
6. Personal memory
What was your favourite moment in your own education?
To be honest the only things I can really remember about my own education are the things I did that were naughty or the things that I did when I wasn’t supposed to be doing them. So I remember having a great time chatting with my friends when I was supposed to be doing work. I remember play times a lot and lunch times, but on the whole I’ve forgotten most of school and actually most of my university, which is quite worrying.
I would like to look back and think there were a lot more memorable experiences than there were. I think the sort of highlights would have been trips that we took and things like that, however, I’m quite concerned by the lack of memories I have from school.
Did you have a favourite teacher?
When I was in school I was quite naughty, so a lot of the teachers were telling me off all the time for talking too much. I went to sixth form college in Cambridge, which was a really good school, and it was the first time I’d been amongst other children that wanted to learn and it was a very positive learning environment.
Some of the teachers there really changed my outlook on life. My secondary school was huge and the teachers didn’t really know you very well. In sixth form it felt a bit more like a community and the teachers got to know you and really encouraged you and I think that was the first time that had happened.
I remember my A-level sociology teacher, Mr. Abbott, was really encouraging – even in just really silly ways. He would say things to me like: ‘Oh, when are you going to be writing for the enemy? The new musical express...’ He encouraged me in my hobbies as well as in my academic career, so I really remember him and am really grateful for that.
7. The next 100 years
The next 100 years of Finnish education should… be about empowering teachers and students to get involved and make decisions that will affect the rest of their lives. I like to imagine schools and student bodies that feel like they have a lot of control over their learning and they feel like they can choose what they want to learn.