This was written by Niall MacKinnon who is a Scottish school principal Niall MacKinnon highlights the need for rigorous GERM infection control measures in education reform programs. You can read Niall MacKinnon's extended version on this article here.
By Niall MacKinnon
In his speech to the Scottish Learning Festival this September, cabinet secretary Michael Russell claimed that GERM is not for Scotland. The Global Education Reform Movement is a concept of Finnish educationalist Pasi Sahlberg, presented in his recent book Finnish Lessons. The features of GERM are standardizing teaching and learning, a focus on literacy and numeracy, teaching a prescribed curriculum, management models from the corporate world and test-based accountability and control.
Scotland’s recent tightly controlled educational landscape of attainment targets, performance indicators and inspection judgements was an example of GERM. But Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) opened up a different pathway in the central “four capacities” concept, emphasizing and integrating wider focuses of linkage and personal development in revisioning pedagogy. CfE showed close affinity with the Finnish Way, outlined by Sahlberg as the antidote to GERM. Finland encouraged risk-taking, learning from the past, owning innovations, shared responsibility and trust through professional dialogue. A central feature of decluttering for CfE was to focus on innovative approaches, emphasizing practice innovation and local professionalism, termed ‘building the curriculum’.
But just as this was coming together, linking proactive innovation, evaluation, and school systems to CfE, it fell apart. This was because of layers of prescription to different performance criteria in new multiple audit schedules, inspection templates and standards and quality reporting, to non-CfE criteria. The main emphasis was not exploring pedagogy, but micro-specification to serve the needs of external control and standardized calibration of schools. Then came hundreds of “Es and Os” (experiences and outcomes) as a curriculum specification ‘painting by numbers’ kit. CfE was further lashed down to seven “required characteristics of successful implementation” framed in a product model of curriculum, delivery model of schooling and behaviorist model of audit. Self-evaluation split two ways, one as evaluation taking the concepts, principles and purposes, applying them evidentially yet discursively – GERM-free. The other, calibrating audit prescription to fixed, outdated notions and applying these in absolutist terms – GERM. This set up a huge conflict within CfE in Scotland, one which Sahlberg took from me in the chapter defining GERM in Finnish Lessons:
“Niall MacKinnon, who teaches at Plockton Primary School, makes a compelling appeal for “locally owned questions and purposes in realising practice within the broader national policy and practice frameworks.” He gets right to the point of how GERM affects teachers and schools: “There is the real practical danger that without an understanding of rationale and theoretical bases for school development, practitioners may be judged by auditors on differing underlying assumptions to their own developmental pathways, and the universalistic grading schemas come to be applied as a mask or front giving pseudoscientific veneer to imposed critical judgments which are nothing more than expressions of different views and models of education. Through the mechanism of inspection, a difference of conceptual viewpoint, which could prompt debate and dialogue in consideration of practice, is eliminated in judgmental and differential power relations. One view supplants another. Command and control replaces mutuality, dialogue and conceptual exploration matched to practice development. Those who suffer are those innovating and bringing in new ideas.” ” (p 104)
The paragraph came from my 2011 paper ‘The Urgent Needs for New Approaches in School Evaluation to enable Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence’ in the international journal Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability. My argument there was that specifications, grading and judgementalism destroy conceptual innovation and local practice professionalism, thereby negating CfE. Torridon Primary School and its headteacher Anne Macrae was my inspiration for that paragraph, now the case exemplar of GERM worldwide in Finnish Lessons.
Sahlberg shows how Finnish education placed central focus on professional dialogue, enabling pedagogy to link modern innovations to a long history of educational ideas. The central conceptual genius of CfE was the “four capacities” concept. It is not a slogan but a clarion call to get to know our pupils, and construct learning pathways by reaching out and revealing the dispositions latent in their potentials. These extend in so many ways out beyond conventional notions of learning, set in terms of delivery, targets and specifications.
We need to unpack learning, garner systemic understanding and enable formative development progression, for pupils, educators and institutions working together, not a “clear plan from A to B” as the Scottish schools’ inspectorate currently mandates. Scotland is now in the midst of GERM warfare between specifications compliance and pedagogic innovation, fought out over the morale and professionalism of Scotland’s teachers. As Dr Sahlberg said of GERM on his blog (30 June) “As a consequence, schools get ill, teachers don’t feel well, and kids learn less”.
Sadly GERM is for Scotland, and the case study of GERM is Scotland. But it could so readily not be, once this is ‘seen’ and something done about it, or rather undone, simply by removing the specificatory shroud and control freakery of judgmental absolutism to outdated notions. Let us ‘build the curriculum’ as intended and envisaged.
The central lesson from Finnish Lessons is not what Finland did, but rather what Finland did NOT do to its education system. “Transformational” change in the nature of curriculum and its realization in school education, which Scotland “says” it is undertaking, is not going to come about without similarly transformational change in the means of getting there.