Saturday 9 November 2013

Breadth, And Talking To Your Neighbour, Matters More Than IT.

There are occasions in every teacher’s career when a pupil say something in their lesson which takes them aback. The clearest such memory for me was the pupil who asked, 20 minutes into a lesson about what makes people successful, ‘Sir, if you don’t mind my asking, but how are you defining success?’ The answer to his question (and it was a ‘him’) made for a better lesson than the one I had planned, and the digression prompted by the intelligence and independence of that question was a fabulous one for learning – both mine and the pupils’.

I was put in mind of that when reading the excellent paper by James Heckman, Professor of Economics at The University of Chicago, writing not about economics, but about education. (

What struck me about this paper was not that it break s new ground, but rather that it re-states what many boarding schools – state and private – and some other (private) providers have known for a long time. The provision of excellent non-intellectual skills in the formative years is as important as the development of intellectual – or cognitive – skills.

At the school at which I work, there is a complete consensus on this idea: it is not enough that we enable pupils to do well in exams, though we do do this, and well. In addition to this, it is essential that we provide young people with the capability to gain promotion, not just the qualifications that will gain them a job.

The breadth of educational provision at private schools in the UK, of course, is not part of the analysis of those schools by the OECD, and PISA does not value that part of the curriculum, except insofar as it enables pupils to do better cognitively (which it does). Non-cognitive – or character – development, makes a tremendous difference to the prospects of young people, and this development does not have to take place only in the home, as Prof Heckman’s paper hints. Rather it can be – should be – part of the core provision of schools.

One further thought on this: the last decade has witnessed an extraordinary investment in IT in schools. The idea that greater levels of IT investment would generate better learning was so widely assumed that it has rarely been questioned. However, one of the consequences of this investment is that young people are spending more and more time within the curriculum staring at a screen, and – of course – they are definitely doing this outside the curriculum too. What they are doing less of is talking, in groups, with a purpose. There is the world of difference between a conversational drift, and the sort of verbal exchange that demands a conclusion, particularly under time pressure.

I am a huge neophile: I love my tablet, and gadgets thrill me. IT has a strong role to play in education, and there are many things we should use it for. But Prof Heckman’s paper reminds us not only that schools have a strong responsibility to develop non-cognitive skills, but also to recognise the development of relational skills, and to see them practised in the classroom.