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by Frank Coffield

Students are contracting a new disease – bulimia academica – defined as repeated bouts of bingeing on information and regurgitating it in exams. The pressures on students to obtain the best possible grades have become so intense that they feel forced to resort to ingesting large amounts of information and then in government-induced bouts of vomiting, otherwise known as national tests, they spew it out.

The term – bulimia academica – is not being used lightly, as that would insult those suffering from bulimia nervosa. Instead it is considered to be every bit as serious as its medical counterpart. Far from feeling better afterwards, students end up feeling empty and educationally malnourished. The students I’ve interviewed in FE and Sixth Form Colleges come to associate learning not with growing self-confidence and a sense of achievement, but with stress and self-disgust. Learning for them is reduced to the skill of passing exams rather than the means of understanding and coming to love the subjects they’re studying.

The cause of this new disease is no mystery. The increasingly punitive testing regime in England is responsible. Politicians from all the main parties will have you believe that it is robust and rigorous. It’s neither. It’s purgative and emetic and as such is both ineffective and inefficient.

This learning disorder is compounded by its equally distressing twin – anorexia academica – that affects individuals and the system. Some students become anxious about being seen by their classmates to be clever; they restrict their intake to bite-sized chunks of information that makes them easier to swallow – the educational equivalent of chicken nuggets. In their teenage years, they lose their previously keen appetite for learning, give lame excuses for repeated failures to learn and pretend to have studied when they have not (or not to have studied when they have). They spend their time reading self-help books about study skills without ever acquiring any. This response may be the self-harming outcome of having been tested every year since they were five years of age, a regime that has turned their stomachs against learning.

The education system itself also shows symptoms of the same malaise, with some curricula driven by qualifications that have had the educational nourishment stripped out of them. Groups of students can be found in colleges discussing topics about which they don’t have sufficient knowledge to form opinions, and so their learning remains shallow. We offer young people so-called ‘transferable’ skills and then discover they need to be in command of a body of knowledge before they can be either critical or creative.

What’s to be done?

In my new book called Beyond Bulimic Learning: Improving teaching in further education (IOE Press), I’ve scoured the research literature for (and tried out in practice) the most effective interventions, and I discuss the results. Even within the tightening parameters set by government, we can still work at transforming our colleges into learning communities and our tutors into experts in teaching, learning and assessment (TLA). Now that Ofsted has decreed that no college can be judged ‘outstanding’ without being ‘outstanding’ at TLA, the best response is for colleges to access the growing body of knowledge on TLA. And this book is devoted to showing how that can be done and is being done within some colleges.

I shall explore here in a little detail two examples and then list the contents of the other chapters. First, the government policy of identifying and disseminating ‘best practice’ is not working, partly because it builds up psychological resistance in those who are being told implicitly that their practice is poor. Instead we could be using Joint Practice Development (JPD), which is based on mutual trust, where both partners observe and are observed, create and receive practical advice. In these ways JPD restores trust in the professional judgement of teachers.

Another chapter evaluates the use of ‘lipped learning’ where students in their own time watch a video on the knowledge and skills they need to learn next and then come to class to discuss their response. The approach creates valuable space in class for higher-order questions and answers, and more individualized support.

The other chapters explain how to harness the potential power of feedback; how social media can motivate students; how Socratic questioning and peer assessment can change the culture of learning; and how students’ motivation is a combination of psychological and economic factors.

So my answer to the question ‘Can we transform classrooms and colleges without transforming the state?’ is a qualified but emphatic ‘Yes.’

Professor Frank Coffield is Emeritus Professor at the Institute of Education, University of London. His co-authors are Cristina Costa, Lecturer in Lifelong Learning (Technology Enhanced Learning) at the University of Strathclyde; Walter Müller, Emeritus Professor of the School of Pedagogy at the University of Würzburg, Germany; and John Webber, Professional Learning and Development Manager at Sussex Downs College, Lewes and Eastbourne.

A book launch for Beyond Bulimic Learning: Improving teaching in further education will take place at Blackwell’s Bookshop at the IOE on Wednesday 7 May 2014 at 6 p.m.

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by Dr Chris Arnold

The European Union is concerned about the rise in youth unemployment across its member states and has allocated 100 million euros for projects to try to tackle the problem.

One project is based on the book I wrote with Tracey Baker, published last summer by Trentham Books and IOE Press.

Becoming NEET: Risks, rewards, and realities examines the concerns about youth disengagement and the dangers to society if youth unemployment continues to rise.

The book tells the stories of five young people affected by the experience of being NEET – not in education, employment or training. Our research revealed that young people who have unstable lives are especially vulnerable, but that the sources of instability can be found in the data held in the existing education records. And by developing local risk factor models it is possible to identify the most vulnerable young people as much as three years before they leave education. Our research shows how early identification can lead to effective interventions that cut drop-out rates by half.

‘Wayne’ is one of our case studies. He lived in a poor part of town; there’s unemployment in his family. At school he had displayed low skills and challenging behaviour. His mother recalled that he enjoyed his junior school but that things got difficult around the second year in high school as the work became demanding. He had support in learning but became increasingly disaffected. The school eventually arranged his education in a training centre which specialized in meeting the needs of children for whom classrooms are difficult places to learn in, but Wayne found this move destabilizing. When he became a father at the age of 16, he wanted to earn money to provide for his son. One stable element in his life was the careers officer (Connexions Personal Advisor) who kept in contact with him throughout his teenage years, and at that point enabled Wayne to find work.

The ideas developed and illustrated in the book – identifying local risk factors, developing screening tools, early identification of vulnerability, and appropriate intervention – have been incorporated in the European project through the Leonardo Foundation. This takes these methods to the Czech Republic, Hungary, Spain, and Eire, and they are all currently collecting data which will be analysed in the UK and used to develop locally focused screening tools.

Becoming NEET has been welcomed by international authorities and I am encouraged by the reception of the book in the participant countries.

Dr Christopher Arnold is a Senior Educational Psychologist working in Sandwell MBC. He has written extensively about the lives of marginalized young people and worked with the local Connexions Service to develop screening tools. His co-author, Tracey Baker, is a Personal Adviser working in Connexions Sandwell, and has developed approaches for working with the most vulnerable young people.

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By Elaine Hallet

What defining characteristics do early years leaders have? How do early years leaders help children learn? What leadership of learning practices help children engage in learning inside and outside the nursery, daycare setting, children’s centre, or school? These questions formed the starting point of a research study exploring how graduate early years leaders who were Early Years Professionals worked with young children, families, and practitioners as leaders of practice. The research found that the graduate leaders are leaders of learning in early years practice with children, parents and carers, educators, and practitioners. Their leadership style was nurturing, influencing, collaborative, holistic, and knowledgeable, driven by a passion to work with young children.

The book based on this research, Leadership of Learning in Early Years Practice (IOE Press and Trentham Books), is a professional learning resource that comes with a DVD featuring real-life examples of leadership practice. Leaders discuss their approaches to leadership in a range of settings and contexts. For example, Amanda explains how she leads learning in a small private nursery school using a philosophy of education for children’s learning found in nurseries in the region of Reggio Emilia in Italy. The DVD illustrates how the children lead their own learning through play and creativity, with the support of the staff under Amanda’s leadership. In a different example, Mags explains how she leads pedagogy for children’s outdoor learning in her playgroup. Influenced by pedagogy practiced in Forest Schools in Scandinavia, Mags created a safe woodland area to facilitate children’s risk-taking, exploration, walking, running, and jumping, allowing them to learn in a child-led and creative way.

These examples of strong leadership of learning are accompanied by questions for reflection that will help existing and aspiring early years leaders to improve their practice.

Dr Elaine Hallet is a Lecturer in Early Childhood at the Institute of Education, University of London and author of Leadership of Learning in Early Years Practice (IOE Press and Trentham Books).

Read more and order Leadership of Learning in Early Years Practice now.

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by Lynn Davies

Research tells us that conflicts are much harder to resolve when they have a religious underpinning. Identities become hardened, there is no basis for bargaining or exchange and both parties think God is on their side. Faith-based organisations are good at picking up the pieces after conflict, but religious divides present a constant threat to security. In my new  book called Unsafe Gods: Security, Secularism and Schooling (IOE Press and Trentham Books), I argue strongly for secular politics as a way of containing this threat. There are many types of secularism – not quite 50 Shades of Secularism, but near enough. My version is not the hard secularism of Communist Russia or France, but what I call a dynamic secularism that is able to accommodate religions and actually ensure religious freedom.

But religion is also risky for education. I see three threats. The first is that when religious divides are replicated across educational institutions, this does nothing to challenge sectarianism. Whether Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, Bosnia-Herzegovina or indeed some of our UK cities, when children are deliberately separated on the basis of their parents’ religion, they receive the dangerous message that it is vital to be educated separately from others. The second, linked, threat is a potential narrowing of views – which is becoming more prevalent with the expansion of free schools. One headteacher at a Muslim free school left, complaining, among other things, that girls were being asked to sit at the back of the class. Some Christian free schools are exploiting loopholes to teach creationism as a valid scientific theory. Free schools are not necessarily progressive, particularly if they present supernatural views as absolute facts about the world, and religious edicts as incontrovertible.

Third, then, is the danger that comes from ring-fencing religion as somehow above critique.  In my work on extremism I have found it crucial that young people learn to analyse religious messages, to question sacred texts and to be aware of rights around free speech. Religions don’t have rights, people do. And in international law, there is no right not to be offended.  In a democracy, we have the right (and duty) to freely critique government and politicians, economists, environmentalists – in fact any of our opinion leaders. Religion and religious worldviews should not be exempt from this critical appraisal – particularly if parts of religious texts can be used to support violence, revenge or gender oppression. Unless young people learn the skills and habits of healthy doubt, healthy enquiry, healthy politics and healthy satire, we leave them highly vulnerable to dogma. It is up to schools to teach these skills. A secular state-funded education insists on a full curriculum, a critical religious education and a safe space to engage in no-holds-barred debate and dialogue across as wide a range of student background as possible.

Read more and order Unsafe Gods now.

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