Bureaucracy kills ideas in education

A few guiding high concepts, not the bloated Curriculum for Excellence agenda, create a path to meaningful learning, argues Rick Instrell

High concept: the pitch for Alien was Jaws in space. Pictured is Sigourney Weaver
High concept: the pitch for Alien was Jaws in space. Pictured is Sigourney Weaver

In pitching films to Hollywood producers a common tactic is to come up with a high concept which encapsulates the proposed film and guides all activity from production to marketing. Thus “Jaws in space” became Ridley Scott’s Alien and “snakes on a plane” became … you’ve guessed it.

In teaching it is always useful to identify high concepts which drive all teaching and learning activities. High concepts are highly abstract conceptualisations of a subject and can be used to scaffold learning and integrate different topics. Learners who understand and apply high concepts develop a deeper comprehension of topics in a subject and tend not to resort to negative learning techniques such as rote memorisation.

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In my own learning this was the secret passed on by the best teachers and lecturers. When I struggled with a subject it was often due to the fact that there had been no attempt to integrate the material in front of me. I would sit at my desk struggling with what seemed like one damned thing after another. However sometimes I made the breakthrough. Suddenly a flash of insight made everything clear. I understood the key ideas about the topic and realised that this same insight could also be applied to other topics in the course. Learning had been transformed from Sisyphean drudgery to one of keen intellectual excitement.

After finishing such a course I would reflect on the experience and think: am I just dumb or should I have been taught the high concepts explicitly in the first place? Surely teachers know these essential ideas or have they just forgotten them?

To me high concepts provide the royal road to effective lifelong learning. So how can we identify them? One method is to try to define a subject in a single phrase. For example, I like to use the definition of computing as the “automation of abstraction”. This implies that in producing a solution to a real world problem one first has to abstract or model its essential features.

Having done that the next task is to identify the best tool with which to automate a solution, be that an application or a programming language or even human beings. The automation of abstraction definition becomes the driver for all learning activities and as one moves from one computing topic to another in a course the definition resonates in every task. It is only necessary then to add evaluative concepts to judge the adequacy and desirability of the solution.

This approach is in stark contrast to most practice in Scottish education. When the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) was first proposed in 2004 I naively hoped that it might herald a new dawn. Perhaps now teaching to the test would disappear and pupils would be learn to think for themselves. I had forgotten Franz Kafka’s warning: “Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy.”

When the new curriculum was published in 2009 this slime had clotted and bloated into the CfE experiences and outcomes tome, a dizzying 317 page exercise in trying to record everything that a pupil should know by the age of 15. These are expressed in the form of many hundreds of experiences and outcomes (Es and Os in the trade). As an aside the biological systems Es and Os are notable for not mentioning evolution, perhaps appropriate for such a dinosaur-brained document.

Every teacher in Scotland received a copy of this doorstop and realised that the new curriculum would be even more bureaucratic and unwieldy than the previous 5-14 version. As SQA implements CfE this paper mountain grows exponentially. Statutory information about equality and inclusion appears again and again. For each subject level, a teacher may have over 300 pages to read. So the typical subject teacher has over 1,000 pages to read if teaching National 4/5 and Higher.

In a time of savage financial cuts most of each department’s budget is spent on photocopying and ring binders. The Scottish educational quangos have created a wall of paper from which there seems to be no escape.

A quote attributed to Isaac Newton seems appropriate here: “We build too many walls and not enough bridges”. To me high concepts provide that bridge because they obey the maxim “less is more”. It is perfectly possible to write a one year course outline on one side of A4 with two to four high concepts at the top of the page and content and learning experiences underneath. The bureaucratic wall is removed and teachers can focus on using these high-level powerful ideas to promote pleasurable and meaningful learning.

In response to teacher protests, the Scottish Government last year set up a working group on tackling bureaucracy which, surprise surprise, blamed teachers for the problem. To paraphrase Tom Nairn, Scottish education will never be free until the last bureaucrat has been buried under their mountain of paper.

That gives me an idea for a film. I’ll pitch it as “Fahrenheit 451 meets CfE”. Title? How about Bonfire of the Inanities?

• Rick Instrell is a member the management committee of the Association for Media Education in Scotland, www.mediaedscotland.org.uk