Education for All Inclusive education Learning Teaching skills

Education Really Matters: Making the most of Online, Hybrid and Blended Learning

Frank O’Hagan

“The web as I envisaged it, we have not seen it yet. The future is still so much bigger than the past.” Tim Berners-Lee (Inventor of the World Wide Web)

Distinctive aspects of meaningful learning

Authentic learning is a complex and multi-faceted phenomenon. Key features for children, adolescents, and adults, regardless of their ages, abilities or social backgrounds, comprise: (1) feeling valued and respected within well-planned and stimulating tutorial sessions and other inspiring settings; (2) being able to listen, pay attention and take account of the ideas, suggestions and advice of trusted friends and teachers; (3) developing versatility in comprehending instructions and tasks; (4) responding appropriately and imaginatively in differing situations; (5) having the self-belief and confidence to contribute in both individualised and group activities in order to achieve worthwhile attainments and achievements; (6) participating enthusiastically in creative and lateral thinking, experimentation, problem-solving work, and independent computer-based and online seminars; (7) personalising approaches towards scholarship and erudition while accepting that at times learning can be challenging and needs to be perceived as an essential, life-long process; and (8) embracing a culture which is value-based and promotes the acquisition of useful knowledge, in-depth perception, and an array of transferrable skills for everyday living in a changing world.

“Study without desire spoils the memory, and it retains nothing that it takes in.”  Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519)

Online, hybrid and blended learning and support

It follows that online, hybrid and blended learning, when used appropriately, incorporate relevant aspects of the eight characteristics, outlined above. In doing so, they deliver a variety of ‘psychologically enriching’ experiences which are informative, practical and life-enhancing. Their efficient usage has much to offer in what teachers can arrange and undertake in a flexible manner to encourage greater insight, reflection, and resourcefulness among their pupils. As in other matters, the saying “Crises breed opportunities” applies to learning and teaching. This is evident as when digital innovations are put to good use for young persons in periods of misfortune, for instance, during illnesses, travel restrictions or a pandemic. Teachers also may want to avail of technological applications when students, for whatever reasons, are unable to attend lessons, wish to learn outside of school hours, or request guidance prior to important examinations.

“Blended learning has to blend something, and in my mind it blends the best of what a teacher brings to the table and the best of what technology brings to the table, together.”  Rick Ogston (Carpe Diem Founder)

The terms ‘online, ‘hybrid’ and ‘blended’ are to be found described in slightly different ways. For the purposes of this post: online simply refers to methodologies which only take place online; hybrid denotes that some learners are physically in attendance while others are online but perhaps, now and then, use is being made of both styles; and blended indicates a combination of conventional teaching or training with members present along with online/e-learning also being employed to extend accessibility, independent contributions and flexibility.

Although available in many forms and guises, each methodology can be effective in promoting scholarship and boosting individual and public participation. They include: networking within lessons, seminars and lectures organized by schools and other educational establishments; linking with data bases, libraries, and websites by way of the internet to undertake research and ascertain relevant information; partaking in one-to-one learning support; enrolling in remote conferences; and perchance delighting in illuminating experiences via immersive involvement in virtual spaces.

Depending on circumstances, these approaches can be utilised in a wide range of locations – in everyday, instructional environments; in the home of a person receiving assistance through a social media platform and, if necessary, in the presence of a tutor; in public co-learning hubs to help overcome a sense of isolation or to benefit from collaboration with other students; in work places for apprentices; and in hospitals for the infirm, to name but a few. There is little doubt that online, hybrid and blended learning, and the meaningful exploitation of assistive technologies, can achieve much in fostering a sense of achievement and self-esteem among educators and those eager to extend their know-how and skillsets.

In all situations, high-quality oversight is paramount to ensure that programs of study meet specified standards and levels of capacity in order for learners to engage and make progress. No participant should be expected to ‘fit’ into curricular boxes. Rather, what is on offer ought to match stages of development and accelerate everyone’s advancement. When truly efficacious, these methodologies create a synergy which challenges recipients to think beyond what is being taught and to seek self-directed routes towards a deeper understanding and perceptiveness.

“Technology is best when it brings people together.”   Matt Mullenweg

Advantages and, unfortunately, some possible shortcomings

As indicated already, technological innovations have the facility to improve management regarding the prearranged pace and presentation of contents in lessons while affording more control over unwelcomed interruptions and disruptive behaviours. (You will appreciate the latter point if you have encountered an unruly classroom!) However, there may be impediments to estimating learners’ levels of engagement and motivation, especially if they inhibit access to their responses and feelings. Such reactions give rise to difficulties in observing and judging facial expressions and other forms of non-verbal feedback.

“Once a new technology rolls over you, if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road.”  Stewart Brand (Author)

Teachers may come across products which publishers are masquerading as motivational and wholesome while in practice they are inadequate. This negative feature arises because many software packages for online learning have not been sufficiently evaluated prior to release. Care is vital to ensure that those being used have some form of evidence-based validation. However, despite potential drawbacks, utilising suitable in-school and commercial computer platforms will successfully convey key facts and information to boost effective learning. Very importantly, well-designed programs also augment inclusive practices through the delivery of bespoke ‘spiral curriculum’ pathways to assist learners, including those with substantial needs. Examples exist within a wide range of areas – the acquisition of skills in reading and writing, mathematics and social arithmetic, the arts, business, and so forth.

Well-judged use of applications (‘apps’ in ‘cyber speak’) within an operating system offers users an array of specific opportunities to deepen their knowledge and competences. Clearly, there is no need for learners to be always in a class or laboratory, particularly if they are unwell, reticent, disabled or unable to follow the contents of a course. For diverse reasons, ‘digital travel’ as opposed to ‘physical presence’ often results in a welcomed endorsement of responsibilities and independent study. Virtual meetings do much to encourage cooperation and networking across interest groupings. Moreover, therapeutic inputs – through carefully selected psychological procedures – have salutary and beneficial roles to contribute in reducing anxiety and enhancing wellbeing. 

Recent developments have enabled learning communities to involve parents and caregivers in observing and, if appropriate, taking part in lessons. Likewise, they have simplified liaison by the sending of private messages and/or results on children’s progress. Online appointments facilitate ‘remote attendance’ at events and can overcome obstacles and constraints when stakeholders are under pressure from packed family schedules. More generally, custom-made websites are being used to keep everyone up-to-date by publishing news items and bulletins. They also have a part to play in providing advice and guidance on matters relating to health and welfare linked with collaborative work being undertaken by professionals, such as social workers, therapists and psychologists.

Concluding thoughts

To briefly summarise – online, hybrid and blended approaches contribute greatly to our capacity to create and deliver new, exciting gateways within schooling and the world of work. They reinforce both personalised and cooperative learning and eradicate any remaining myths concerning ‘one-size-fits-all’.

Advances include: (1) openings for educationalists to share ideas, good practices and ‘what works’; (2) easier admission by young people to lessons, seminars, training prospects, and formal apprenticeships; (3) greater flexibility in taking account of learning contexts, living conditions, and everyday experiences; (4) a range of high-quality options to record, monitor and review achievements and to offer reassuring feedback; (5) a better focus on addressing requirements arising from disabilities or additional support needs; and (6) privacy for sick, anxious, reserved or reticent individuals.

Future constructive growth will: (1) extend ‘open’ scholarship; (2) stimulate a genuine culture of connectedness across inventiveness, innovation and research; and (3) enhance communal equity and inclusiveness. Within this on-going expansion, it is crucial that marginalised groups have the necessary resources and assistance to be fully engaged. Otherwise, they will fall further behind in not having access to beneficial didactic and training opportunities. Undoubtedly, there is a duty on governments and authorities to sweep away stumbling blocks and to bring together willing and talented parties to generate significant, collective improvements.

“I am still learning.”  Michelangelo (1475 – 1564) at 87 years of age

For a related article on the topic of “Promoting Authentic Learning”, please use the following link:

Education for All Inclusive education Learning Teaching skills

Education Really Matters: Reflections on Acquiring and Using Language

Nick Pepin

Early professional experiences

When I embarked on my career in education as a newly qualified teacher, I was particularly interested in language development and enthused by The Primary Memorandum and the writings of Margaret Donaldson and Noam Chomsky. This enthusiasm then bumped into the reality of the serried rows of 40+ children in a composite Primary 6/7 class in an inner-city primary school in Glasgow, each of whom was equipped with a copy of Angus McIver’s ‘First Aid in English’. I reflect on this now in a manner I didn’t then, the ways in which ideas are tempered by realities and the dynamics in resolving such tensions.

< ‘Meow’ means ‘woof’ in cat. > (George Carlin)

Of course, Primary 6/7 wasn’t really a starting point for anyone in that classroom other than myself. The children were now 10 or 11 years of age and had proceeded through classes from Primary 1. None had experienced pre-school education. Some had progressed well in their acquisition of language skills while others had not. All but a tiny handful had the same ‘First Aid in English’ as a text book. Three or four attended what was referred to as ‘Remedial’ a few times a week for help with their reading using the Griffin Pirate Readers. These children, who made little progress, and a good number more were struggling to achieve a level of competence which would allow them to access much of the curriculum in secondary education. Complicating matters was the clear understanding the children had themselves of where they stood in relation to their classmates and in their confidence in reading. Listening, talking and writing were similarly stratified but much less openly. Over the years this feature would remain the case while more differentiated reading schemes even more noticeably identified who was doing well and who wasn’t. This seemingly clear view of where each child was in relation to reading – and thus to language more generally was also evident to parents and carers. “What level is Alex on now?” was almost always a leading question.

Points to ponder

For many teachers the effects of poverty are evident every day and they struggle to compensate. Children who are underfed and poorly nourished do not learn as well. Breakfast clubs, free school meals and other mitigations, where available, help but the impact of uncertainties over such basics as food, clothing and accommodation are hugely damaging. Parents who labour with such problems are often unable to interact meaningfully with their children including by providing models for language development.

When I stand back from this partial picture of my first months as a teacher and use it as a backdrop to what I have seen and learned over the next 40 years of what key points strike me most and require consideration. These include the following.

  • Poverty and its attendance issues
  • The quality of interactions – listening and talking, behaviour and products
  • That children, especially when young, are always learning but not perhaps what we think or want, and this phenomenon has consequences
  • The huge importance of the early years in children’s lives for learning and the disparity in training, esteem and rewards for those working in early education
  • The expectations placed on schools and teachers
  • The quality of interrelationships across listening, talking, reading and writing
  • The impact of new technologies on language acquisition and use
  • The seemingly perennial problems over interfaces in the transition from early years to further and higher education
  • The importance of abilities in language in empowering citizens
  • The need to recognise how verbal language sits alongside other languages, e.g., mathematics, the arts and design.

Acquiring and using language

Setting aside for the moment formal tuition of the kind schools seek to provide, I believe that the key to language development from the earliest stages is the quality of interactions with someone who is more able in the use of language. Where this can be a person to whom the learner has a strong bond, the outcome is more powerful still. The provision through interactions of models of language whether in listening, talking, reading or writing is critical. Very young children, I believe, grow their vocabularies and how to use them by observing and replicating what they see those close to them doing. When, for example, the need to point to something they are interested in is replaced by the ability to ask for it, this represents a huge step forward. Where the models for such acquisition are plentiful and rich – including nuances of tone or alternative vocabulary – then progress is likely to be rapid, especially if opportunity, time and encouragement are present. When such modelling is neither present nor encouraged then progress will almost certainly be slow. It is interesting to consider how today the main models for spoken language – concerning hearing talking through listening – come via television or a computer-based technology where the nature of any interaction is very different from a traditional conversation or discussion. Children today are probably more used to listening to a variety of sources and media, often competing. It can be helpful where appropriate to specify a focus for listening. Similarly, when developing talking, sharing what has been heard in a focused way with referencing to points made by others can help discussion skills. Assisting learners to express themselves and to present their ideas is an important life skill. Again, children will benefit from positive models of listening and talking and from seeing that their contributions are valued.

Reading is something which many children do not witness. For adults to be seen reading in the home is rare. Even then, while the mechanics, the holding of the book, orientation, turning pages and so forth, can be observed only a few outward manifestations of the impact of reading – for example a smile of frown – can be seen. Functional reading may be more often seen than a longer text but is likely to be transitory. Again, the child from an advantaged home starts well ahead from one where in the midst of struggles to survive there is little time or money to provide models of behaviour or of products, books and texts of any kind.

The situation with reading is further complicated by the unique position it holds in the eyes of adults and children alike in delineating progress at school. The use of core reading schemes, of almost any kind, has pluses and minuses but one strength, which can also be a problem, is that it makes clear where the reader is, or seems to be, on the progression through the scheme. It Is the very stuff of many parent-parent chats, “Jack’s on Level 5 now” says the smiling mum to the neighbour whose child is carrying home Level 4. And children know it too of course. That progress isn’t usually on a simple steady gradient is well documented but again can cause concerns, specially where terms like ‘behind’ start to be used. Only today I encountered on Twitter comment from a newly qualified doctor from Cambridge saying how once she was described as being ‘behind’ with her reading.

There was a remark by Margaret Donaldson that, among many, impacted on me at the outset of my professional involvement in education and it was the idea that children, notably young children, are learning all the time and that, in a sense, this can’t be turned off. What they are learning is, of course, the key question. I have always railed at the idea that we specify aims and from these objectives then proceed to teach and that’s what is learned. I have no problem in trying to be clear as teachers what we hope children will learn so as better to plan how we’ll go about matters but what they learn may well be something different, even if our objectives seem to be met. Some of this can be delightful, for instance when a child notices a pattern in words that has not been part of the lesson. Sometimes children can bring to bear additional information from some extra experiences they have had. Making connections is hugely significant and good teaching will value contributions and use them, making explicit what might not be immediately clear to others. However, we need also to be aware that the child – compelled almost as they are – learns much else simultaneously. This can include how to appear engaged when they have drifted off to ‘dream’ or, to be kinder to them, reflect on and refine other aspects of their lives. They can learn that their ideas are readily welcomed or not. They discover that some of their peers are highly regarded while they are not, they seldom are asked to contribute, their ideas are laughed at, and so forth. Ascertaining their worth and standing in a learning context is a vital part of what children apprehend and this process is taking place from the very beginning. When they start to encounter ‘learning to read’ at school too many are not sustained in their image of themselves as likely successful readers.

Not all learning takes place within a school or pre-school setting. Those professionally employed as educators will have children who differ, often greatly, in the range and quality of prior experiences including with language. Some may have great richness, some considerable paucity, some may not have English as a first language and it may not be used at home. The challenge for the teacher – and here I use ‘teacher’ specifically as it relates most closely to the reality of almost all children – is therefore a daunting task in order to make an authentic difference.

I have used, witnessed, encouraged and inspected a range of approaches to early reading. I have read about some others and discussed methods with interested and sometimes expert people, from students to professors. I have never been a zealot – and such exist – for any particular approach rather seeing the crucial factors being the ability to have regular quality time for interaction on a text that matters to the learner. When the collaboration involves a skilled practitioner then the effect is enhanced.

In my consideration of language acquisition, I return time and time again to the importance of contexts. I believe that learning is quicker and longer lasting where the setting is meaningful to the learner and, ideally, engenders interest, commitment and pleasure. The drudgery of toiling through pages of worksheets and exercises is neither effective nor without collateral damage. I believe there are methods of teaching reading – or any aspect of language – which crush the desire ever to read, speak or write again.

While many of us who take a professional interest in education would argue for and strive to promote the use of language as a worthwhile pursuit, indeed a source of pleasure throughout a lifetime, we need to be careful to recognise that this may not be what everyone seeks. There are those who will not elect to read, write or engage in discussion, very often preferring perhaps other means of communicating such as art, movement, making music, or practical activities using their hands. We must see such choices as wholly valid.

Nonetheless, such is the central importance of verbal language that it behoves us as educators to do what we can to empower learners in its use so that the choice at least exists. Reading particularly is vital to learners as they progress through the tiers of education. A young person moving from primary to secondary school without a good level of reading ability is very likely to struggle with the texts upon which courses are based. Later in many further and higher education courses, especially in the humanities or social subjects – though these may today be decreasing – the ability to engage in discussion is an important ability.

Writing has always proved to be a problematic area. Talking through ideas, providing it is not overdone, can be a productive way of releasing ideas and building a desire to write. In engaging learners in writing, it is important that they have a sense of audience and purpose. Initially, of course, they are their first readers and where the teacher can so organise as to be able to interact meaningfully with the developing writer close to the point of writing then progress is maximised. Too often responses to writing in school regress to stock comments – “Too much use of and”, “Remember full stops” etc. – removed in time and relevance from the act.

Writing is an aspect where the creation of text was rarely witnessed by others and so the learner had no model of the process. When teaching, I would try to open up the activity by talking through as I wrote, amending ‘live’, and trying to engage the learners witnessing the procedure. This is difficult to accomplish or sustain in a class situation. Providing a range of written models is easier but many teachers still find that the pressures on managing a large class incline them to resort to published ‘schemes’. Working with learners on the nature of different texts is often replaced by written exercise-based chores. This is understandable but regrettable.

Contemporary innovations and future trends

In more recent times, technology has had a dramatic effect on language acquisition, notably I believe on writing and reading. When word-processing became possible, it greatly improved the opportunities for redrafting text, not simply making it look better but allowing the writer to reflect on it and formulate changes over time; a process which should allow for both a better piece of writing and an enhanced understanding for the writer. That this possibility is not well used in schools is unfortunate.

The coming of the misnamed mobile ‘phone’ has again impacted quite dramatically. I can still remember a teacher saying to me that children just didn’t write any more (not sure how much they ever did) and I’d arrived at the school via a train on which almost every young person was keying in text at a furious rate. The mobile has radically changed the nature of writing and consequently reading. For many, speech is infrequent on their mobile ‘phones’ having been replaced by messaging using one or more apps. The nature of this writing is very different with such features as predictive text and a host of abbreviations. Some of the language thus generated is already being absorbed into artistic forms as well as becoming widespread in business and social interactions. Little of this is taught. It is learned because of its context and relevance to those using it and the models peers provide. It is dynamic and fast in evolving. The young are usually more adept and I suspect that there are now more disputes over hashtags than the Oxford comma.

For last year’s words belong to last year’s language

And next year’s words await another voice.”

(Four Quartets – T. S. Elliot)

Footnote: Nick Pepin taught for 10 years in primary schools in Glasgow, Cumbernauld, the Shetland Isles and Arrochar. He was Headteacher of three schools before becoming Lecturer in Primary Education at Jordanhill College of Education. His innovative staff development work, particularly in all aspects of language development, gained him a national reputation. He was a member of the committee which produced the national report on Education 10-14 and was a National Development Officer for the Primary Education Development Project

In 1990, Nick was appointed HM Inspector of Schools. During his 20 years with HM Inspectorate he held posts of responsibility for Early Years, Creative and Aesthetic subjects and as Depute Director of the Audit Unit. He drafted the report on The Education of Children Under Five in Scotland and led a European Commission project involving 9 countries on approaches to quality assurance in education. Latterly, he was District Inspector for North Ayrshire, Inverclyde and South Lanarkshire. He has inspected extensively in pre-school, primary and secondary schools, aspects of teacher education, and the provision made by education authorities.

Accomplishments Education for All General Inclusive education Learning Teaching skills

Education Really Matters: Pathways to Justice and Peace

Frank O’Hagan

Can the power of education ‘give peace a chance’?

How can educationalists address the question of why – when in modern times we have witnessed so much progress in terms of academic research, scientific discovery and technological achievements – humankind is so frequently unsuccessful at establishing and maintaining pleasant and cooperative conditions for everyday life? Of the many sayings coming down from Confucius, one which is certainly worthy of consideration goes along the lines of ‘Education breeds confidence. Confidence breeds hope. Hope breeds peace.’ In what ways then can education promote self-assurance and trust and, in turn, contribute to peace and concord in society?

Harmful emotional reactions, standpoints and behaviours are not necessarily fixed and constant attributes; they can be modified in positive directions by stimulating and constructive learning environments. Young persons deserve opportunities to develop sympathetic impulses and mature, well-balanced outlooks. If they build and cultivate candid and honest ‘growth mindsets’, they can become more skilled at meeting challenges and postulating possible routes for settling disagreements. Educationalists have important roles to play in putting forward balanced and open frames of reference from which dialogue can begin to explore problematic situations in a detailed and objective fashion.

21st September

Peacefulness –benefits to be found at personal, social and national levels

Peace of mind. At a personal level, tutoring and support can act as a foil against threats to safety and welfare by drawing attention to unsafe risks in hectic, frenzied and over-productive lifestyles. Selected themes and topics for reflection often lessen unwanted internal pressures, enhance self-care and encourage relaxation strategies. Additionally, guidelines and content in this domain have a significant spin-off when they highlight and boost sought-after personality traits relating to self-knowledge, insight and goodwill. These may cover: high-quality judgment and decision-making; tolerance of and respect for others; proficiency in arbitration and conflict reduction; and the virtue of forgiveness which, unsurprisingly, happens to be associated with wellbeing and mental health. It is evident that acts of moderation and solicitude are crucial in the context of interpersonal dissension. The processes of negotiation and conciliation, coupled with compassion, in any form of altercation can manoeuvre to peaceful conclusions and amity on all sides. Resulting rewards include affirmative feelings such as gratification, contentment and sense of belonging.

Peace within families and communities. Building warmth and cohesiveness in and across groups demands attention from one and all. A holistic stance – encompassing the involvement of children and young people, families, schools, colleges, and their localities – is desirable. This perspective advocates that it is wrong not to care about a wide spectrum of household and regional issues which includes intercultural tensions, racial discrimination and unfair employment practices. It regards our biases and narrow-mindedness, to some extent at least, as a cause of communal disunity. Simply wanting to sit on the fence is not an option. Nor is peace without social justice. A shared commitment – facing up to bigotry and unscrupulous customs and progressing with the objective of implementing purposeful substitutes – is not only advantageous but a key requirement. As a consequence, the function and strength of education to provide a comprehensive focus on seeking and appraising remedies should be exploited.

Peace amongst nations. Conflicts and hostilities produce so much misery and destruction in their wake with the innocent and uninvolved, time and again, suffering most severely. In war, even those with supposed right on their side have been known to commit terrible atrocities. Education for peace makes it possible for all of us to comprehend more fully the drivers which bring about rifts between states – poverty and unfairness, corporate greed, climate change and so forth. It can empower learners to reflect, not only on their own individual goals, but also on how to make their civilisations and nations safer and happier. It allows them to move on from self-centred considerations to an in-depth understanding of the responsibility which everyone has in building connectedness at a global level.

“I think that people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of the way and let them have it.”
Dwight D. Eisenhower (1959)

Education as a vehicle for creating and reinforcing respect and trust

The exploration and promotion of peaceful co-existence can take place in our educational institutions by utilising a variety of informative approaches. At all phases, care needs to be taken to ensure that the values of harmony and camaraderie are presented in an age-appropriate manner. For nursery children, these could include story-telling, role play, establishing friendship bonds and triggering collaborative behaviours. As pupils move through the stages of primary education, suitable engagement in areas such as reading, art, drama and project work, comprising both bygone and prevailing events, will extend their knowledge and appreciation of choices for resolving needless turbulence in daily living.

Similarly for adolescents, peace might be a topic in its own right in personal, social and health education (PSHE), wellbeing or psychology as well as incorporated into curricular areas. By its nature it might be organised – particularly in the early years of secondary education – as a cross-curricular theme embracing a range of subjects, for instance: English, the arts and historical studies. In literature, both novels and poetry could provide highly illuminating insights about the origins and outcomes of conflicts; in music, prejudice and reconciliation could be investigated via protest ballads and anti-racist songs; in art and design, posters and paintings could demonstrate the horrors of cruelties or the delights of public accord; and in history, students might be asked to examine recent attempts to establish pacts with regard to international disputes or the reasons behind outbreaks of civil unrest in past ages.

As youthful minds try to come to terms with societal divisions, they strive to obtain solutions to bothersome predicaments. Why is there a lack of openness, integrity and humility among leaders and spokespersons of rivalling causes? How do obstinate and untrue perspectives sustain so much mistrust and belligerence across divided sectors in modern-day society? Why is ‘fake news’ a powerful scourge of honesty? Young people (indeed all of us!) need opportunities to confront falsehoods and inflammatory remarks, including those disseminated to support or incite animosity against beleaguered groups. At national and international levels, the manner in which politicians or military commanders make use of jargon, including stigmatisations and superficial slogans, about hostilities is worthy of analysis. Exemplars of this modus operandi can be found in expressions like ‘friendly fire’ and ‘collateral damage’ when casualties are shown to have been innocent bystanders. Similarly, pupils can pinpoint devious and furtive statements circulated in misleading explanations or excuses which attempt to provide moral justification after horrendous mistakes have occurred.

Appositely-chosen teaching blocks dealing with common issues about collective welfare will connect with learners’ worries and concerns. Programmes of study which are aimed specifically at fostering citizenship or probing parochial controversies can profit greatly if due account is taken of the recurring cultural circumstances which both juveniles and their parents are experiencing. At a time of ethnic unrest in a school’s catchment area, it could be vital to place a robust emphasis on intercultural empathy and respect in order to boost positive relationships among those from differing backgrounds. Teachers can outline scenarios illustrating the value of empathetic interventions in communities and the benefits of peaceful co-existence. While it may be fanciful to expect immediate or all-embracing answers, current matters relating to bias and discrimination within and between neighbourhoods can be addressed tactfully and judiciously resolved. Open-ended discussion is one worthwhile tactic for ascertaining the motives underlying dogmas and ideologies which sponsor or endorse quarrelsome behaviour, radicalisation and terrorism.

“Justice is truth in action.
Benjamin Disraeli (1851)

Hopeful steps forward to joy and goodwill

Proponents of the ‘violence paradox’ contend that levels of warlike hostility have declined over the ages by means of better governance, advances in social equality and respect for human rights. Of course, this is not to deny that more caring and benevolent norms and traditions ought to be strengthened further. Such headway would be welcomed in well-ordered, liberal societies throughout the world. However, history teaches us that – without warning – stability, cooperation and warmth can disappear and should not be taken for granted. There are various helpful methods, at times overlapping, for prompting awareness and incentives towards a deeper perception of altruistic and philanthropic behaviours. Four of these are touched on sketchily in this section.

Problem-solving strategies. These call for students to: analyse alternative outlooks; research aspects of frailty and weakness in our global family; and suggest options which point to improvements. They also pose questions about moral issues concerning prejudice, poverty, malnutrition, torture, and on customs which permit antagonism to thrive. Violence, when contagious, requires urgent solutions. Problem-solving sessions may provide a springboard for ideas to emerge – the likes of ‘safe streets’ initiatives to counteract unprovoked attacks in disorderly quarters or how ‘contact theory’ has been applied, as with sports, in trying to reduce sectarianism. Additionally, developments in new technologies – for example, the use of drones or robots in so-called ‘cutting-edge’ warfare – undoubtedly call for youthful thinkers to adopt fresh approaches with respect to ethical deliberations. In lessons, while taking due account of the abilities and maturity of learners, challenging questions can be raised. ‘What are the powerful forces which promote tension and trouble in our locality?’ ‘How insightful are we be about the attitudes and ill feelings of opposing factions?’ ‘Can we understand how wild conspiracy theories might have arisen?’ ‘What could we do as agents of change to counter deceitfulness and misinformation?’ Pupils are often found to be skilled in identifying barriers to equity, diversity and inclusion and in outlining well-thought-out recommendations to augment a culture of impartiality and truthfulness.

Teamwork. Assignments produced by partnerships examining the nature of peace, aggression and confrontations offer opportunities for youths to whet their investigative talents. There is a multitude of motivational themes and subjects for collaboration with effectual use made of statistical data, documentaries on contemporary interests and records kept in libraries. Attention can be directed as to how best to evaluate political arguments or national concerns. Such chores enable students to think creatively about how remedies can be found and purposeful, evidence-based mediation implemented. One line for scrutiny could aim at verifying how certain occurrences or situations – abuses of civil rights, criminal networks, climate change, trade wars, victimisation because of religious beliefs, etc. – have given rise to conflict and international hostilities. In some cases, coursework might be related to the endeavours of historical figures – Bertha von Suttner (1843 – 1921) who was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Peace, Mahatma Ghandi (1869-1948) and his philosophy of nonviolent resistance, or more recent well-known advocates who have resisted brutality and sought concord.

 ‘Slow thinking’/ ‘Slow speech.’ These terms are sometimes used, not to highlight the speed with which reasoning takes place, but rather to stress the need for thoughtfulness and attention to detail, especially in taxing situations. Tranquillity and open-mindfulness allow areas of dispute to be reviewed from the perspectives of diverse sides. Individuals or groups ‘agree to disagree’ while expressing their attitudes honestly. Antagonists consent to remain on speaking terms and to ensure that interactions do not become unfriendly or intimidating. Learning tasks examine why the manner in which people exchange feelings, facts and opinions is of great consequence. Words, jargon and context carry emotive weight as when careless or imprudent remarks, albeit when made in jest, become an unintended cause of discord. In fragile conditions, they easily lead to resentment, indignation or create an excuse for an opponent to justify a breakdown in further dialogue. In contrast, trustworthy undertakings will foster reflection on what attributes might be developed in order to negotiate and treat rivals with proper dignity and integrity. In a calm and serene climate, peace may come ‘dropping slow’.

 Conflict resolution. An added interesting approach has been the deployment of responsive systems which encourage negotiation and reconciliation. Ideally, and very briefly, these methods involve the enhancement of competences in listening, interpreting differences and seeking common ground in a flexible and even-handed manner. Two confronting parties, in turn, have the opportunity to express their views as clearly as possible. After a presentation, the other side then reflects its particular understanding of what has been conveyed. The process can be repeated, with the assistance of a facilitator, to clarify perspectives and sort out misapprehensions. In this way, both units have opportunities to explain their positions and pinpoint the divergences which need further elucidation. Overall aims are to define the benefits of agreement and identify the procedures by which divergences can be settled, or at least accepted, in a harmonious fashion. In discussions, it may be appropriate to refer participants to the function of formal truth and reconciliation commissions in attempting to ensure that restorative deeds and fair-mindedness prevail.

Concluding comments

In general, though they may not always articulate what is of importance to them, children and young people have shared interests in their futures and in how living circumstances can be improved. Through example and meaningful learning, they develop a deeper respect for values associated with kindness, tolerance and supportive interpersonal connections. The study of bridging frayed relationships contributes to investigating and mapping out how everyone – by means of realistic, open and justifiable courses of action – can advance solicitous and compassionate practices. It challenges simply maintaining ‘normality’ (whatever that might mean?) and focuses on enabling humanity to flourish. When fulfilled, its outcomes relate closely to wholesome mental health and wellbeing and are characterised by the endorsement of an authentic dedication to the pursuit of collective happiness.

“Happy those who are persecuted in the cause of right: theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
(Matthew 5:10)

Effective and worthwhile schoolwork concerning JUSTICE and PEACE can be summarised as consisting of: Promotion of positive values; Enthusiasm and drive for upgrading friendships and alliances at personal, communal and national levels; Acceptance of evidence-based research regarding what needs to be undertaken; Commitment to delving into how ground-breaking transformations can be accomplished; and Engagement in activities which further inclusiveness and harmony. To be achieved successfully, this agenda presents a complex and demanding set of tasks for educationalists. Hopefully, their endeavours will lead to highly enriching results for learners of all ages; the fruition of their aims is vital for the greater good of communities and civilisations.

(Frank O’Hagan previously was the Adviser of Studies to Bachelor of Education students at the University of Strathclyde. Later, he was a member of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education.)

Accomplishments Education for All Educational development Learning Teaching skills

Learning Together – A Radical Approach to Inspections

Chris McIlroy

A big question faced by the recent review of aspects of Scottish education was ‘What kind of education inspection do we need?’ Commentators argue the inspection process should be ‘robust’, ‘independent’, ‘transparent’ and ‘evidence-based’. Its purposes should be to ‘focus on improvement for learners and good practice in teaching’, ‘ensure accountability’, ‘report on standards’ and ‘engage stakeholders’. This is too great a burden for an inspection to carry and some features of these aspirations often can conflict with others. It is intended that the collaborative approach to school inspections advocated in this paper eliminates any undue stress or overwhelming pressures which can be associated with these occasions. Rather, the aim is to focus on how best to enhance the future wellbeing, growth and culture of our schools. It is time for a fresh look at what makes a good inspection and to concentrate on what matters.

‘Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning.’ (Benjamin Franklin, 1706 – 1790)

Evaluating, communicating and promoting improvement: are our schools working well?

It is important to children, families, communities and councils that they know that their schools are operating effectively. In modern Scotland, with well qualified teachers who take part in a range of professional learning, we should be able to get to the heart of an educational establishment’s health without an inspection becoming too burdensome or comprehensive. An important indicator that a school is in good health is its track record in improvement. Which aspects are improving and how has that been achieved? Which are in a steady state? Which are stubbornly resisting improvement efforts and why? Moreover, the slow pace of educational improvement is a major issue for Scottish education highlighted in national and international comparisons. Future inspection models should therefore focus much more on evaluating improvement as a gauge of a school’s health and less time on ‘reading the metre’ to describe quality indicators and attainment standards – a major focus in recent years. By building a shared account with teachers of a school’s improvement work, inspectors and teachers will contribute to accountability and respect the professionalism of schools.

Good inspections lead to improvements in the quality of learning and in learners’ achievements. If an inspection does not improve these, it has not been worthwhile. Inspections are expensive in time and emotional energy so they must show their value. Let us be honest, despite the emphasis in recent changes to inspection, not every inspection leads to significant improvements, and promoting improvement still lacks prominence as the core activity of inspection. The best gift an inspection can give is to leave a school with the confidence to improve, feeling inspired and with a clear pathway of ideas to benefit learning and teaching. Inspections that focus on improvement have recurring discussions about the school’s success in making advances and in identifying ways of adjusting procedures where authentic progress is hard to make.

(Aristotle, 384 -322 BC)

Harnessing the powerhouse of professional learning

The powerhouse for improvement in schools is often professional learning. Where teachers reflect on learners’ responses and seek their views, engage in focused observations of their colleagues, try out and evaluate ideas to enrich practice, participate in dialogue and debate, significant improvements occur. How do I know? Since retiring, I have been working with over 300 classroom teachers in Glasgow along with two able leaders in applying these ideas on the ‘Improving Our Classrooms’ course with great results. The implications for inspection are clear – inspections should have a much stronger professional learning emphasis in which teachers and inspectors together discuss features of practice and justify and illustrate their judgements with evidence from the classrooms.

‘The ratio of We’s to I’s is the best indicator of the development of a team.’ (Lewis B. Ergen)

Inspections also are well placed to evaluate generic issues in learning and teaching, curriculum, meeting different needs and assessment which are key to improvements in learners’ understanding and achievement. They are best addressed strategically, keeping to the high ground to avoid drowning in detail. Investigating together issues – such as the pace of learning, challenge and support, feedback on progress in different classes or subjects – is a good test of a school’s teamwork applied in the classroom. The quality of development of skills for learning, work and life in the twenty-first century, including personal and social competences, creativity, problem-solving, critical thinking, reasoning and understanding is a penetrating indicator of curriculum relevance and worth.

Inspecting together: good professional relationships

Inspections which lead to improvements are often associated with collaborative professional relationships. Close links and rapport matter because inspections involve learning together and tackling hard questions about improvement which include openness, honesty and mutual respect. Where teachers play a full and active part in inspections, they are more likely to understand and ‘own’ ideas for improvement and are keen to make them work: in other words, effective relationships are necessary to facilitate learning together. The combination of good relationships, partnership working and a focus on improvement is modelled in a successful inspection.

Teachers’ experience and knowledge of their school should play a major part in directing improvement. The idea of bringing together those involved in teaching and learning with inspectors who have wider experience of learning and improvement in schools is sound. Yet the way that power is assigned in inspections may make it difficult to achieve professional partnerships. There may be tension, even fear, and an assumption that inspectors are there to demand justification from teachers or that they ‘know the answers’ and their wider experience enables them rather than teachers to make judgements about ‘how good’ things are. Where inspectors recognise the equal but different value of contributions from teachers and themselves to evaluation and improvement, genuine partnerships for advancement can develop.

Supporting educational priorities

Schools and inspections are designed for a purpose: to improve education, communities and society. The needs of society and the context of important national issues in education should influence the response of schools and the shape of inspections. Inspections should conclude, therefore, by evaluating and recording how the school, its community and society are benefiting from its work and how the inspection will add value to its improvement work.

We know that most pupils do well out of Scottish education but the system fails some pupils and the gaps in educational success between more and less affluent families are an enduring social issue which has defied resolution for over 50 years. The recent pandemic has also highlighted the impact of mental and physical health and emotional wellbeing on significant numbers of children and young people. Key issues for discussion towards the end of inspection will therefore include ‘inclusion’ and closing the poverty-related attainment gap. There is a strong case for a later evaluation of the success of the inspection to focus on these issues and for that evaluation to involve two independent evaluators, one from another education authority and a neighbouring headteacher who has been trained in evaluating impact.

Concluding remarks

An inspection model, based on evaluating and professional learning in a collaborative and pragmatic manner, has much to offer with regard to ensuring high levels of improvement within educational provision for children and young people regardless of their ages or stages. It operates through positive, trusting and inclusive principles towards fostering engagement and raising standards among two of society’s most treasured assets – skilled teachers and motivated learners.

‘Progress is not inevitable. It is up to us to create it.’ (Anon)

Footnote: Chris McIlroy was a teacher and headteacher in primary schools in Glasgow and later a Chief Inspector in Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education. He also has been a Visiting Professor at the University of Strathclyde and a consultant with many education authorities across Scotland. Among his previous published articles are two relating specifically to inspections:

McIlroy, C. (2013) ‘The Scottish approach to school improvement: achievements and limitations’, in T. G. K. Bryce, W. M. Humes, D. Gillies and A. Kennedy (eds), Scottish Education, Fourth Edition: Referendum. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

McIlroy, C. (2017) ‘The National Improvement Framework and the Return of National Testing’ in T. G. K. Bryce, W. M. Humes, D. Gillies and A. Kennedy (eds), Scottish Education, Fifth Edition. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Education for All Inclusive education Learning Teaching skills

Education Really Matters: Saving the planet … and beyond

Frank O’Hagan

Carpe diem?

What are children and young persons to conclude from the many differing points of view which circulate about the future of planet Earth? Trump-like attitudes abound. Sceptics perceive activists as absurd and confused. Some proponents of the status quo harbour illusions of normality and stability as continuing onwards from decade to decade. Others simply tout spin over substance to cause distractions or attempt to kick thorny conundrums into the distance for future generations to grapple with and possibly resolve. Groucho Marx succinctly summarised this narrow-minded short-termism – “Why should I care about future generations? What have they ever done for me?” In contrast, there is what is sometimes referred to as ‘cathedral thinking’ or in other words ‘being good ancestors’. Our predecessors bequeathed exquisite buildings for us to admire. Can we, in turn, leave a delightful and healthy world as an inheritance to our descendants?  

The young can become confounded by the multitude of different opinions and pressures in circulation. They have a right to know what those in positions of responsibility at both local and national levels are proposing and must be allowed to voice their apprehensions. It is essential to respond to the significant doubts which they may wish to raise. Should there be regular publications of targets already missed, as well as having an agenda for future action? What more can politicians, environmental planners and business leaders undertake to make up for lost time? How critically do civilians scrutinise deficits in modern living and in what ways can they greatly improve the quality of everyday life? While these are legitimate questions for investigation, there are similar queries concerning youths’ own endeavours, and those of their families and communities, in lessening the dangers of climate change.

Obstacles to overcome

Educationalists will have specific principles to observe in order to provide clarification, elucidation and hopefulness for all age groups. While teaching may be aimed, either directly or indirectly, at outlining current progress and eliciting discerning feedback from pupils, care must be taken not to over-exaggerate. Guidance should ensure that learners grasp trustworthy facts and the outcomes of genuine, scientific research. Lessons and activities need to be well-judged and take due account of their abilities and stages of maturity. A focus on their investigative and problem-solving skills will boost motivation and confidence. As some might have felt perplexed and experienced a sense of helplessness through a succession of reports on the media, a warm and inclusive learning ethos can reduce emotional upset and help avoid deleterious impacts on mental wellbeing.

There have been numerous efforts to build an alertness of risks associated with the likes of extreme weather conditions or toxic fumes causing ill-health and early deaths in cities. However, some commentators have noted what has been called an ‘information deficit model’ – valid facts not known or understood – is still to be found in sectors of society. This is a separate phenomenon from that of the denial of indubitable facts and statistics. When such circumstances prevail, interest and inspiration can decrease. Nonetheless, it is apposite to not to ostracize either of these factions but rather to give time to examine the reasons underlying their prevalence. This standpoint facilitates opportunities to figure out how they came to adopt unconventional positions and to engage in dialogue.

What are the challenges which have to be overcome in improving our ecosystem?

Another obstacle is that the threats connected to climate change normally are not instantly noticeable and, as a result, treated as inconsequential. While it is relatively easy to understand the immediate menace of a global pandemic, the linkage between homes being flooded and carbon emissions is less obvious. By highlighting and explaining the gradual variations which are occurring and the requirement for long-term planning, perceptiveness can be increased and doubts resolved.

It is fortuitous that, when it comes to facing controversies, the well-known myth of ostriches sticking their heads in the sand when dangers loom generally does not apply to eager learners. They are cognisant of the message conveyed in this myth and have enough savvy to review and confront the predictions which envisage the destruction of Mother Earth. Let’s wish them every success!

A dynamic and comprehensive curriculum

Much closer attention is now being given to teachers’ knowledge and skills vis-à-vis sustainability. Additionally, the contributions of specialists in schools, further and tertiary education and industrial-related research substantially heighten awareness. While fully accepting the importance of formal qualifications, credit also has to be accorded to the value of other forms of educational inputs which encourage mindfulness and responsiveness in the 3 to 18 years-of-age range. There are identifiable features of coursework which are immediately suitable for inclusion. As well as providing vital information, they can delineate practical solutions and emphasise positive individual and collective roles for clear-sighted intervention.

The curriculum on offer requires to be all-embracing. It not only needs to extend beyond saving the biosphere but, furthermore, ought to include the numerous means through which contemporary living conditions can be upgraded. The topic of climate change is only one element, albeit a markedly important one, of a wider study encompassing the saving of our planet … and beyond. Its overall aim is the enrichment of the living environment for all humankind. Within this broader framework, a commitment on decarbonization towards net-zero emission targets can be regarded as a ‘saving’ aspect. When the agenda morphs into the creation of a truly healthier, greener and life-enhancing environment, objectives are magnified towards ‘saving and beyond’. Thus, a more comprehensive approach incorporates improvements to tackle poor living conditions, unhealthy diets, misuse of pesticides, destruction of sea beds from excessive dredging, the dumping of garbage and radioactive materials at sea, and the list goes on. It also contains suggestions for consideration on appropriate, eco-friendly involvement. Education really matters!

We are family – all in it together

We live in a common home and our society now has the opportunity to create a happier, safer and flourishing world. While teachers and tutors can partake meaningfully, it would be unreasonable to expect only education settings – nurseries, schools and colleges – to embark on this onerous task. Fortunately, there are many sources for learners to exploit over and above their formal curriculum – for instance: guidance from parents and guardians; the supportive influences of peers; enlightening books, newspapers and television documentaries; dedicated sites on social media; and sponsorships by organisations which focus on improving agriculture and fishing. Authentic, scientific data and advice are accessible from comparable founts of vision to endorse and hasten a beneficial, cultural transformation.

A detailed syllabus on this over-arching theme is exceptionally complex. For anyone even mildly interested in the subject, there is an extensive range of conventional and technical terms in general usage such as: greenhouse gases; carbon capture; environmentalism; ethical investment strategies; transparency on resourcing; sustainability; greenwashing; and recycling. Thoughtful reflection on the terminology can deepen our foresight and understanding of the difficulties which have to be appraised. Moreover, there is a very broad spectrum of relevant topics which takes in: the reduction in road and air travel; greater use of public transport; wastage of rare metals; pollution of land, sea and atmosphere; biodiversity; wind, marine and solar power; energy saving in homes and buildings; peat land preservation; and the traceability and purchase of food and goods.

This immense array of varied contents necessities a highly organised schedule across age bands and curricular areas in order to steer clear of duplication and to ensure maximum impact. It is commendable when schools have devised an inventory relating to the integration of learning prospects. Though these may seem arduous undertakings, the good news is twofold: staff in education are occupied already in this enterprise and, for pupils, their ensuing acquisition of comprehension and prescience guarantees advancement in terms of personal, social, emotional and cognitive development.

Love learning, love your planet

At the early and nursery phases, children form habits with regard to cleanliness, communication, personal safety, good manners and kindness to others. In creative and investigative play activities, they develop an appreciation of camaraderie, flowers, animals and parks. The value of an enjoyable and stimulating early education is undoubtedly of real benefit in fostering their respect and sensitivity towards their immediate surroundings and nature in general. Individual displays or in friendship groups, at times in the company of family members, can enable them to demonstrate their interests aroused by drawings, designs and photographs.

As pupils move through primary school, they have opportunities to learn more about everyday living and how to take good care of ecosystems. A firm basis for responsible citizenship is being established. Project work is often arranged to cover a wide variety of themes, allowing children to select, investigate and then share their findings. For example, on the fashion industry, they might examine disclosure as regards where goods are produced, what they are made from, the distance they travel before being sold, how well the workers are paid, whether these commodities are likely to be recycled or discarded, etc. Likewise, take the girl who reported that her investigation in an upper primary class had been on the damage caused by plastic waste. She mentioned that she had learned about an island of rubbish, larger than Britain floating in the Pacific Ocean, and the devastation of plastic to sea life. The following year, her class had taken part in a topic on rain forests with freedom to pick their own projects. Her skilful presentation had focused on the destruction of forests and its harmful consequences to biodiversity, including disturbance to animal inhabitants. This assignment promoted independent learning and touched on aspects of English, mathematics, biology, environmental studies and technology besides exploratory and fact-finding skills. All worthwhile and motivational.

The cross-curricular nature of ecology and green politics is evident throughout secondary education, an opinion forcefully made by a second-year teenager when interviewed, and requires effective cooperation from different departments. This characteristic holds the likelihood of deepening the understanding of complex issues though analysing them from separate perspectives. While STEM subjects are regarded as particularly pertinent – teaching about the efficient use of energy in physics or the production of ‘blue’ and ‘green’ hydrogen in chemistry – most subjects offer a great deal to explore. A few illustrations underline this point: business studies and economics highlighting how ethical investments can be advantageous for the environment; religious and moral education examining ways in which a united front on improving bionetworks can result in increased communal happiness; and art and design assisting in the production and distribution of imaginative posters or pamphlets for World Earth Day (22nd April).

Shouldn’t every day be World Earth Day?

Optimistically, by the time that students are leaving secondary school, they will be fully equipped to reflect expertly on perplexing dilemmas as migrations due to crop failure or tensions among nations arising from the pursuit of scarce commodities. They will have acquired the necessary competences to comment on how success and failure rates by governmental agencies should be published and judged. On occasions, they may feel obliged to monitor how mandatory requirements and subsequent penalties for non-compliance by individuals or public bodies are implemented. All being well, they will become the guardians urgently required to safeguard humanity.

Young people care, therefore they are part of the solution

If addressing climate change is urgent, why has headway been incoherent and tardy? It has proved to be comfortable to ‘talk the talk’ but considerably more challenging to ‘walk the walk’. The dominance of rationalism, following the philosophical dictum ‘Cognito ergo sum’ (I think, therefore I am) of Descartes, lingers on in some current thinking and still influences much of what takes place at major conferences. No matter how erudite the conclusions might be, if they lack pragmatism and empathy, they are of little value. The concept of ‘caring’ in this context implies not only appropriate degrees of perception and understanding but a steadfastness in implementing evidence-based responses.

While they await to find out in what manner those in positions of authority are prepared to move forward, the futures of juveniles are to some extent put on hold. It is clear that many adolescents feel obliged to call out for vigorous action to avoid planetary suicide. As responsible outspoken advocates, they deserve our praise. Recently, it was enlightening to hear one primary school girl earnestly supporting the view that children can spread ideas on good practices to a widespread audience in addition to their families. Another touching and impressive case of pupil power and influence was a children’s play which was attended, among others, by the wives of the President of USA and the Prime Minister of UK while the G7 Summit was taking palace in Cornwall in June 2021. Heartfelt messages must be heeded. Virtue-signaling by dignitaries – especially when lacking in genuine honesty and affirmation – is merely hollow and hypocritical.

Youths who have studied and understood impending perils – whether these link to pollution, unrestricted excess, climate change, a dearth of international collaboration, and the like – neither desire to propose utopian dreams nor to write death wish messages. They comprehend that there is no quick fix and also that some countries are already living on the edge of existence. An emergency has already arrived but positivity has not been vanquished. For them, false narratives, complacency and nihilist stances on future calamities being ‘too big to handle so live only for today’ are not acceptable. Learners know that, cherish it or not, they too are involved and have their parts to play. They identify themselves as global citizens and demand a ‘can do, make it happen’ mindset to be adopted.

Concluding remarks

Education locations, at all stages from nurseries to universities, are in a very powerful position to promote life-affirming policies and practices and to assist in reaching ambitious targets which have been agreed. They deserve the support of governments and scientific communities to further develop their programs of study on how to save and improve the condition of a planet in need of loving care and treatment.

Effective educational inputs can be regarded as valuable human assets which enable students to concentrate on constructive routines for facing challenges rather than becoming accustomed to feelings of disempowerment. Using their own research and critical thinking, youthful scholars are able to embrace the role of ‘learner as scientist’ in their search for explanations and answers. It is an energetic form of attentive engagement. As a consequence of their successful efforts, they come to realise that individual behaviours and human customs cause so much damage. They want more than warm words (‘Blah, blah, blah!’) – they demand positive action.

Through their studies, all understand that there are choices which can no longer be sidelined by society at large. They learn to reject procrastination, doom-purveying pessimists, fake news and pseudo-scientific buzzwords. They understand that people, including themselves, need to make informed decisions and to confirm that they are completed inside designated timescales. Many have proved that they are already a force for good and aim to ensure that their incremental steps will ultimately result in giant leaps forward.

(Frank O’Hagan previously was the Adviser of Studies to Bachelor of Education students at the University of Strathclyde. Later, he was a member of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education.)

Education for All Inclusive education Learning Teaching skills

Education Really Matters: Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Frank O’Hagan

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” (Nelson Mandela)

A dedication

Up to the time of her death, a beloved sister of mine was a teacher for more than 40 years, working almost exclusively with pupils from deprived backgrounds or those experiencing social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. When she started her teaching career in the 1960s there was such a shortage of teachers that her very large primary class had to be divided into two groups. On alternative weeks, one group attended a morning session and the other an afternoon session. Both groups were considerably larger than the average primary class of to-day. While bravely facing her imminent death, she still worried about young persons’ future lifestyles and lack of learning opportunities. Sadly, many of her fears have morphed into a reality – continuing austerity, low levels of literacy, feelings of alienation and a lack of employment prospects. As I jot down my views on diversity, equity and inclusion, my gratitude goes to her and the many teachers, educational psychologists and inspectors of education who have contributed to improvements in this field and with whom I have had the privilege to work.

The times are always a-changing

In recent years, although there have been changes for the better, concern about services for vulnerable pupils with diverse needs – who live amidst all sectors of society – continues to be a debated and disquieting issue for parents and educationalists. What is more, in periods of hardships and public cutbacks, this aspect of educational provision for our more disadvantaged students can be seen as an easy target for financial constraint and staff reductions. A range of workable strategies will be necessary to ensure that so many young people do not come to perceive themselves as enduring failures. 

Everyday attitudes about the characteristics of young learners alter and transmute, as do conventional stances regarding how their education should be subsidised and managed. These modifications are due to many different factors such as the impact of research projects, developments in teaching methods and advances in society’s views about the rights of children. Outlooks have evolved and perceptions have become more nuanced in a variety of ways. For instance, autism was once considered to be a very rare, one-dimensional and rather inexplicable disability. Nowadays, it is generally recognised as being much more prevalent and to be across an extensive and complex spectrum which comprises intellectual, linguistic, social and behavioural dimensions. Moreover, it is not unusual for pupils who have been assessed as on the autistic continuum to possess high levels of concentration and/or an in-depth comprehension concerning specific topics of interest.  Additional cultural swings have included a greater acknowledgement of the potential of many learners displaying attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to demonstrate positive cognitive features such as creativity.

There are many promising means of developing suitable and empathetic contexts which are truly beneficial for all young people. Through well-tailored, personalised learning programmes, recent findings in educational neuroscience have provided a more hopeful perspective on the capacity of students to adapt to the difficulties which they encounter. Thankfully, there is an evident willingness among professionals to face the very significant obstacles which have to be overcome.

The message is clear that ability is not a fixed entity and that pessimistic attitudes about capabilities regularly need to be confronted. Nonetheless, key questions remain. Has society the will and capacity to address issues relating to diversity, equity and inclusion? How can plans be focussed on success while retaining inbuilt flexibility and identifiable care?  Can educational systems have targeted interventions available to ensure that any apparent ‘breakdowns’ in levels of accomplishments can be quickly ameliorated?

Current challenges to inclusiveness

It is well nigh impossible to be unaware of the presence of diversity in modern society. It manifests itself in statistical surveys and in traditions and pretexts covering age, background, gender, ethnicity, ability, religion and so forth. It is our human melting pot containing both splendour and richness. It also can give rise to apprehension and unease has when individuals or groups are viewed as ‘others’ who are not fully entitled to the rights and privileges enjoyed by ‘in’ groups (a process sometimes referred to as ‘othering’).

Values – such as acceptance, appreciation and kindness – are elements of daily living to be treasured in education and training. Meeting the needs of diverse groups implies interconnectedness and cooperation in establishing universal rights and in building an equitable society. This stance calls for an end to greed, unrestrained capitalism and the continued destruction of Mother Earth. It stipulates that the voices of all students concerning their feelings and self-identified needs should not only be heard but be listened to attentively. Undoubtedly, there exist across our troubled world many obstructions to this vision which require urgent reform. Among an extensive list, depending on customs and place, it may be the disregard of the rights of children who are forced to work rather than be educated, the underachievement of poorer white male adolescents, or vocational openings being denied to students who are physically disabled.

Difficulties encountered, when teaching young persons with varying needs, are too often viewed as arising ‘from within’ or ‘belonging to’ them. From such perspectives, recognised learning problems can be treated as if they are owned by students and their private responsibility. Highly significant environmental factors – prejudices, the lack of adequate nutrition, impoverishment – are overlooked. Consequently, learners are not properly involved in decision-making but are subjected to pronouncements which are hoisted on them by way of a hierarchical system. Parents and guardians, due to their prior experiences, also can feel excluded and may need encouragement to build trust and become actively involved in combatting inequalities.

Skilled educationalists realise that many young people require basic but essential assistance in ‘learning how to learn’ in order to ensure future progress. Staff dedicated to inclusivity will have an expertise in: (1) creating warm and stimulating climates to facilitate headway; (2) establishing purposeful learners’ plans; (3) setting short- and long-term targets; (4) applying procedures relating to advice, guidance and support; and (5) providing motivational feedback to students, parents, guardians and other relevant parties. When acquired, pertinent skills – listening, collaborating, planning, problem-solving and coping mechanisms – can be transferred across curricular areas. It is critical that, for the prerequisites and characteristics of high-quality learning and teaching to be maintained, the capability and proficiency of staff are constantly upgraded through on-going professional development.

Every learner has the right to be included

All pupils deserve to be deemed worthy of making advancements at their own levels of attainment and capacities to learn. Various forms of integration have been implemented, for instance in terms of: locations; social arrangements and communal involvement; and functional and/or instructional settings. Genuine inclusive educational environments will fuse all such approaches into a cohesive and harmonious framework from which no student is excluded. Further, they extend to cover equitable opportunities for vocational training, employment placements and lifelong learning. The overriding philosophy must leave behind a previous ‘What are your problems and weaknesses?’ way of thinking and adopt an outlook which asks ‘In what ways can we assist you to enrich your attributes and extend your talents?’ Staff endorsing an all-encompassing ethos do not see themselves as working in ‘examination factories’. If necessary, they are willing to have fewer or no public accolades as regards their rankings in ‘fake’ national league tables.

When approaches to education are focused on the identified requirements of each learner, travel along productive and rewarding pathways to success is augmented. Along with this methodology, inclusiveness can be a strong catalyst in bringing about camaraderie among students of varying abilities and aptitudes. It follows that, if possible, they should not be cut off and isolated from their peers when undertaking tasks. Learners with diverse needs can expand their knowledge and skills fruitfully in hospitable pedagogic cultures. Authentic collegiate learning provides a sound basis for the cross-fertilisation of views on how they can assimilate information and benefit from new strategies on route to further accomplishments.

For educationalists to play an effective role, they have to challenge the status quo and provide the means of developing competences to overcome social and economic hardship. Programmes which cultivate both worthwhile qualities (for example, confidence, self-esteem, honesty and resilience) and relevant know-how (healthy living, money management, occupational capabilities and so forth) to enhance future chances are of the utmost importance. For these purposes, information and communication technology is helpful in nurturing learning and teaching and in addressing differing needs. At present, computer-based learning, though often very advantageous, is not a panacea. However, further innovations, as the quality of the machine-learner interface improves, augur high prospects.

All forms of educational provision require having well-defined roles, responsibilities and protocols in place for staff who are expected to respond to vulnerable students exhibiting risky behaviours, such as substance abuse, self-harm or noteworthy learning difficulties. Circumstances might necessitate the input of professional agencies which have clear remits to contribute at whole-school, group or individual levels of involvement. Short-term targets may focus on speedy improvements in attaining specific competences, expedited by time-limited, solution-based approaches to resolving pressing concerns. Longer-term objectives could embrace the acquisition of interpersonal skills and a sense of self-assurance. Indeed, for all, it is fitting to move forward well beyond existing hindrances and to encourage positive and rewarding lifestyles.

The dangers of labelling and classification

The drawbacks of labelling can include obscuring learners’ needs, making unwarranted assumptions about their abilities, and inadvertently depriving them of occasions to engage in inclusive practices. Labels also may have a negative impact on the confidence of teachers who might come to the erroneous conclusion that a pupil’s requirements and capacities cannot be accommodated at their school. Improved appliance of assessment methods can detect the co-existence of differing cognitive and behavioural difficulties, all of which require to be addressed within carefully-organised modes of intervention.

Teachers and educational psychologists wish to ascertain strengths and requisites when assessing learners. Unfortunately, by engaging in a classification process they may unwittingly fabricate a rationale which results in pupils being even further removed from mainstream education. For instance, students can suffer a ‘triple whammy’ as when a categorisation unduly influences: (1) low expectations relating to their potential; (2) an assumption that they should not be accepted into a school; and (3) the likelihood of them being permanently excluded.

There has been a widely-held belief that categorisation and labelling are important in providing legal protection, acquiring funding and gaining access to extra assistance from services and educational establishments. Certainly, case studies to back this view can be found. Nonetheless, there are other ways in which these benefits could be obtained if a comprehensive framework of students’ rights was utilised.

Endeavouring to fit an individual’s needs into a single grouping can have deleterious consequences. In general, there has been a distinct move away from the usage of tight categories. However, even looser eclectic descriptions, such as ‘experiencing additional support needs’, carry with them the danger of being interpreted as a rigid classification. A constant emphasis on differences and a disregard of similarities opens the way to shifting from receptive towards restricted mentalities. Vigilance to ensure that a learner is not excluded (or should one say ‘imprisoned’?) via the improper use of a label is paramount. (In any case, do we not all have additional needs, albeit diverse ones at differing levels?)

Assessment which leads to well-directed assistance and incentives

Appropriate appraisal procedures are required to address difficulties and play a crucial role on behalf of learners who are experiencing them. They not only clarify levels of current competences and capabilities but also indicate which forms of involvement and aid are most advantageous. In erstwhile routines, a great deal of credence was given by professionals to formal intelligence tests and standardised results in connection with language and numeracy. More recently, there have been considerable criticism and scepticism concerning the application of such types of normative measures. Very often, as an alternative, the emphasis has been placed firmly on using assessment techniques to help structure and maintain successful tutoring strategies, adaptive behavioural interventions and uplifting learning environments.

There is much to recommend in utilising processes which combine accurate assessments of strengths and requirements alongside the identification of those circumstances best suited to needs. Carefully-staged observations of everyday situations are valuable in avoiding simplistic analyses when attempting to map out how best to intervene. Within therapeutic and educational surroundings, formative assessment can be highly beneficial in terms of promoting both effort and achievements. It enables teachers to highlight what learners have mastered already and to devise future learning pathways.

Skills relating to on-going constructive assessments may appear easy on paper but in practice require substantial expertise. They take account of: devising and setting realistic objectives for all students; sympathetically but rigorously monitoring their progression; providing feedback in an inspirational manner; and collaborating with learners in reviewing their aspirations and in planning forthcoming goals. A concerted engagement following this outline reveals hidden talents, rejects segregation and increases a sense of belonging.

“Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and test of civilisation.” (Mahatma Gandi)


The needs of too many students are frequently missed, their perspectives misunderstood and their voices ignored among the bureaucratic and complex demands of modern education. A cultural shift is fundamental if inclusiveness is to gain traction. The acceptance of diversity and the commitment to ensuring equity for all entail high levels of advocacy, respect, tolerance, compassion and appreciation to permeate throughout learning communities. Unconscious bias has to be recognised and abolished along with negative stereotyping and labelling. Specialised support should be extended and focused within mainstream education, if necessary, using existing special schools and clinics as resource centres.

Governmental and local authority guidelines must wholeheartedly incorporate egalitarian principles and values. If official proposals or prescribed curricular topics prove to be unworkable, the duty of educationalists is to draw attention to deficiencies and to recommend or ‘reclaim’ appropriate courses of study and training programmes for their students. Schedules which include thoughtful and regular monitoring to enhance emotional wellbeing, acknowledge accomplishments and generate further advancement are key ingredients in maintaining successful developments. When effectively delivered, professional collaboration promotes confidence, self-belief and ‘can do’ mindsets regarding endless options for personal, social and intellectual growth.  

In summary, proponents of inclusive education aspire to foster welcoming, coherent and vibrant systems which:

  • are open and respectful to all learners without any imagined or created barriers to admission and full participation
  • provide individualised learning pathways which ensure meaningful progress irrespective of identity, attributes and social background
  • encourage students to take responsibility to attain their desired learning outcomes through well-planned and accommodating interchange and negotiation
  • offer a comprehensive and integrated range of counselling, guidance and supportive strategies in conjunction with relevant professional agencies and local facilities
  • help to build and maintain energetic, equitable and flourishing national and community services.


Points for consideration

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal No 4: ‘To ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’ (by 2030).

United Nations: Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities: General comment No 4, 2016. Article 24: Right to inclusive education: ‘The right to inclusive education encompasses a transformation in culture, policy and practice in all formal and informal educational environments to accommodate the different requirements and identities of individual students, together with a commitment to remove barriers that impede that possibility.’

These are world-wide challenges. How advanced is our nation in reaching these high standards? Perhaps, more basically, are those in positions of power and responsibility fully aware of goals to which they are committed?

Note: For a brief charter focusing on the principles and characteristics of equity and inclusion in education, please use the following link:

Additional note: A wide variety of items on inclusive practices are available for study and reflection at:

(Dr Frank O’Hagan previously was the Adviser of Studies to Bachelor of Education students at the University of Strathclyde. Later, he was a member of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education.)

Accomplishments Education for All Educational development Learning Teaching skills

Education Really Matters: Raising Potential, Attainments and Achievements

Frank O’Hagan

Crisis? What crisis?

Criticism has been made that the term ‘attainment’ often is used and interpreted in too narrow a fashion. This view suggests that it is construed as applying primarily to measurements arising from formal assessments in traditional curriculum areas as language and literature, mathematics, social subjects and the sciences. There is no suggestion that these subjects are unimportant; simply that, if and when they are over-emphasised at the expense of other key constituents in education, evaluations made on the competence of many learners may be misjudged or undervalued. For these reasons, all-embracing phrases such as ‘potential, attainments and achievements’ have come to be regarded as more appropriate by many educationalists. 

Some media outlets seem to take to an open delight in distributing news about falling standards and highlight what they perceive to be a general decline in the overall accomplishments of young people. Given the manner in which various assertions are made, they may well reflect a lowering in the quality of research and reporting among sections of newspapers and social networks. To justify the claim of deterioration in any subject, it has to be convincingly established that the current position is being compared with an equivalent benchmark using relevant criteria. Instead of conjecture and speculation, unambiguous and valid verification has to be presented to the public. Too frequently, damning comparisons fail to convince. However, despite their usage and analysis regularly being highly misleading, there is a positive aspect to data on results being so eagerly awaited and cited in the press and internet. It is that appraisals of students’ abilities and talents are clearly matters of repeated concern and worthy of further investigation.

There numerous reasons as to why contrasting measures of the past with those of the present are extremely hard to substantiate. They cover:

  • using flawed or differing sampling techniques;
  • the adjusting and modifying of methods of assessment over a period of time;
  • altering and amending the contents which are taught in a particular subject making it nigh impossible to compare like with like; and
  • the evolving demands from commercial businesses concerning modern skills-based training as witnessed in science, computing, technology and engineering.

Contemporary industrial societies expect leavers from schools, colleges and universities to possess a range of knowledge and expertise which is dissimilar to that of previous generations. Of course, these observations do not assert that current achievements are as elevated as they could or should be; only that references to discrete cohorts can so easily be unreliable or invalid. There is a crisis but it is a continuing challenge which is twofold in nature, namely that: (1) the urgent requirement for more inclusive and effective improvements in educational provision is forever with us; and (2) standards have never been deemed by politicians or the public to be at sufficiently high levels.

Fake news, league tables and misuses of statistics

Areas of disquiet are publications and ensuing disagreements which arise with regard to ‘league tables’, based on published results for educational establishments. At times, these procedures can amount to heralding a series of nationwide humiliations! Once again, there are many occasions when scrutiny and analyses ought to be undertaken in a more cautious, honest and professional fashion. On closer inspection, judgements sometimes have to be treated with suspicion or simply not be given credibility. Educational statistics are an illusion if they do not take full account of social and environmental factors influencing school populations.

Inappropriate conclusions can be drawn when, for example, differences and contrasts are made of results from comprehensive schools with other institutes which rigorously select their pupils. The use of statistics to highlight the so-called benefits and merits of selective and private schools or, for that matter, ‘elitist’ state schools can be downright dishonest. Such schools are generally associated with high academic results. Nonetheless, a breakdown of the data can demonstrate that in fact a so-called higher achieving school should be doing much better when other features, for instance deprivation rates, are taken into the reckoning. Moreover, some schools serving impoverished neighbourhoods are succeeding remarkably well, given the tasks which they are expected to undertake and the resources available to them.

Another case in point relates to conditions concerning the organisation of national examinations. It has been well known for many years that local authorities and schools vary in the percentages of their pupils who have special arrangements in place when they sit tests. Schools serving more affluent localities and private schools are in a favourable position to make use of assessments to identify pupils experiencing dyslexic conditions or other additional support needs. Consequently, the pupils may well have extra time allotted to them in exams and/or scribes to help with writing. How then can these schools be evaluated fairly against those in more deprived areas where pupils with similar difficulties have been less likely to have had comparable support and assistance? Some divergences are so extreme that the comparisons make little sense due to the advantages gained by the more privileged pupils.

 ‘Closing the gap’

In recent years a great deal of political debate has been concerned with what is commonly referred to as ‘closing the gap’. Issues on this important matter are generally considered and conveyed in terms of academic subjects rather than the much wider range of capabilities and personal qualities required in daily living and employment. A recurring mistake by policy-makers and the media has been to deliver their announcements as if there is only a singular gap. In the real world, within different social groupings in urban and rural communities, there are multiple inequalities in prospects for intellectual growth, academic qualifications and training options. A restricted focus on the outcomes of formal appraisals presents both a handicap and a disservice to learners. Moreover, it curtails a central aim of education, namely, to develop and establish a truly unbiassed, flourishing and mature society.

An institutionalised, rigged system exists and must be unravelled and reconstructed. If the powers that be are serious about closing gulfs and expanding opportunities, they can start by ending child poverty which is continually at scandalous levels. How can impoverished families focus on future advancement in the here and now of a ‘postal lottery’ when they are struggling to survive?

Addressing various disparities, while raising standards, will give rise to a host of predicaments which demand a sequence of appropriate, evidence-based interventions. After careful deliberation on the circumstances and specific drawbacks existing within schools and their locations has been undertaken, suitable resources need to be supplied and well-targeted strategies implemented. If weaknesses are to be fully remedied, attention has to be given to the needs of all learners which implies that ‘within-school’ fissures also have to disappear. After all, neglect of even a small number of learners creates an unwelcome gap. Efficient and connected approaches, along with the on-going belief and commitment of staff and students that ‘together we can do it’ are crucial in advancing towards increased success rates. Levels of quality across the curriculum can be raised but, like many other desirable purposes, collective endeavour and willpower are essential.

Reasons to be cheerful?

Educators from nursery to university have a sense of duty and resolve to promote long-lasting satisfaction and happiness within learning processes. A continuous prominence on the love of learning and on fulfilment through personal progress provides a firm foundation on which norms and outcomes can be upgraded. When students experience sensations of immersion and total involvement in learning, sometimes referred to as ‘flow’ by advocates, they are enabled to map out pathways for steady improvement and to constantly add to the sum total of what they have already accomplished. Nonetheless, at times, there may be too much stress on positivity. Hopes, alas, are not synonymous with dreams; optimism and high expectations need to be balanced alongside pragmatism and moderation. Pupils usually are aware that it is best for them to be well prepared for arduous times and unexpected circumstances. They realise that it is advisable to give some consideration to possible outcomes which might not be as good as previously had been anticipated and that, if this turns out to be the case, to remain composed and geared up to forge ahead.   

The impetus for advancement in knowledge and applied skills can be found in some key ingredients which are already present in current practices. These include students: feeling confident and well supported; being sufficiently involved and challenged, but not overwhelmed, in their studies; and having a genuine belief in the usefulness of selected curricular activities. Involving them in regular, sensitive and insightful checking of their endeavours and contributions is one proven means of fostering success. Passing on greater responsibility to self-evaluate and monitor progress is an integral component of a thriving learning environment. Effective ways of doing so take account of: (1) constantly enabling students to participate in making  decisions on their individualised targets; (2) ensuring that they are well acquainted with the goals which, with sufficient effort, they can realistically achieve; (3) establishing confidential feedback mechanisms, including the use of up-to-date technologies, which are easily accessible to them, their parents and guardians; and (4) encouraging them to draft and analyse a model curriculum vitae and then to decide on what curricular route they need to follow towards fulfilling their well-grounded aspirations.

Towards an agenda for improvement

Most would agree that governments should strive to adopt and implement improvement policies which endorse a desire to learn, the expansion of skills, creative thinking, and open and flexible mindsets from infancy to old age. The promotion of an abiding and authentic culture bestows real benefits regarding human capital, prosperity, health and wellbeing. 

Prerequisites change considerably as learners grow older and move along distinct steps from nursery through primary and secondary schooling to vocational programmes, college or university and beyond. Moreover, prospects associated with further tutoring and professional enrichment for workers and adult students have to figure in any far-reaching innovations. The quality of recording evidence of progress is important all the way through these inter-linked phases and is critical in the embellishment of existing capabilities and proficiencies.

During the infant, primary and early secondary years, children generally experience broad play and/or learning programmes and often work on integrated topics which cover a variety of subjects; there is a tendency to concentrate on developing their knowledge and understanding across curricular areas. Towards the end of secondary education, they can begin to focus on and specialise in specific subjects of interest. For those who wish to undertake commercial or industrial training, while the value of some traditional skills and trades has diminished, new avenues have become accessible. At college and university, openings to follow distinctive routes abound. Through all these stages, objectives will be reached if learners are given worthwhile opportunities to take advantage of the serendipitous breaks and options which come their way. At the same time, society needs to acknowledge the folly of excessive usage of computational schemes when assessing individuals. There is an urgent necessity for better methodologies to be initiated through applying a greater significance to more eclectic and value-based approaches.

The ‘measurement agenda’, when it dominates the comments and observations of evaluators, limits perspectives and fails to place a spotlight on the numerous hidden but valuable abilities and attributes of many young people. Alternative recording routines for transitional phases need to be introduced to provide more accurate and holistic profiles. As indicated earlier, an over-emphasis on quantitative analysis risks accentuating unnecessary competitive attitudes and dubious, judgemental conclusions. They also have a propensity to nudge some examination boards towards resembling number-crunching accountancy firms using dodgy data and superficial algorithms. Additionally, education authorities must continue to beware of suspect inter-school comparisons and their deleterious effects, particularly if based on unfair suppositions. Crucially, teaching staff deserve to have a more direct say and responsibility in relation to the content of courses of study and on the types of qualifications and post-school destinations which are most meaningful to their students.

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The following quotation which often is attributed (though probably incorrectly) to Albert Einstein seems apposite when discussing quantitative and qualitative assessment procedures. ‘Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.’

Learning communities together with their students must remain at the centre of all deliberations. Educators are fully aware that, in addition to reflecting on how well their educational establishments are functioning, it is imperative never to ignore the abilities, aptitudes and development of every student. Each one has the capability to move forward and it is the accumulation of individual endowments which generate overall performance. (In fact, simply encouraging pupils from more deprived environments to turn up for examinations has been found to boost the degree to which a secondary school has progressed!)

A clear benefit of targeted support and guidance for learners from diverse social backgrounds is that, as participants, they can profit through becoming more engaged, responsive and forthcoming. Attempts to upgrade benchmarks must include all concerned, including young persons who appear disenchanted and/or rebellious. They may feel that there is little possibility of them fitting in with any kind of ‘culture of excellence’ – whatever that might mean to them. Fairness and inclusiveness demand that a thorough account is taken of the feats of those experiencing difficulties relating to physical or mental health. Acceptance of, and commitment to embrace, those who are profoundly neglected or in need of assistance will greatly enrich society as a whole. Everyone matters!  

Concluding remarks

Undoubtedly, the prospects for learners, regardless of social background, can be enhanced in many ways. A key factor is to ensure that there are first-rate chances for both young and old to have authentic ownership of and control over their futures. We only have to note the remarkable transformation which has occurred due to greater female emancipation and the subsequent entitlement to studies from which girls and women were previously barred.

The following points are worthy of further enquiry when the topic of potential, attainments and achievements are discussed:

  • accomplishments and successes are about much more than results in tests; there should always be appropriate consideration given to other relevant factors such as aptitudes, interpersonal skills, giftedness, practical know-how and participation in sporting and cultural activities
  • thoughtful analysis and scrutiny must be assigned to the use and reporting of statistics, especially when the outcomes seem to be sensationalist or melodramatic; in particular, caution is necessary when contrasting current learners with those of previous generations or when one educational establishment is compared with another
  • there are many reasons to be optimistic as to how advances can be taken forward so long as inspiring programmes of study and suitable resources are made available to enable all learners to follow their aspirations and augment their talents
  • the recognition and celebration of potential, attainments and achievements, when coupled with efficient independent governance by a national agency, are extremely significant and advantageous not only for individuals but also for families, local communities and a state’s cultural and economic growth.
Everyone can be a winner!

(Frank O’Hagan previously was the Adviser of Studies to Bachelor of Education students at the University of Strathclyde. Later, he was a member of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education.)

Education for All Educational development Learning Teaching skills

Education Really Matters: Assessment

Frank O’Hagan

A complex and controversial topic

One of the many contentious areas in education relates to the purpose and nature of how evaluations are made, and reports are written, about the abilities and talents of children and older students. The main issues which appear in the media and are of concern to teachers and parents may seem initially to be relatively simple. However, further inspection shows them to be both elaborate and multifaceted. For a start, the focal point of an appraisal might be related to everyday knowledge, practical skills, analytical capability, dexterity, originality, inventiveness, problem-solving, creativity or a mixture of these features.  Furthermore, assessment practices cover a wide variety of age and social groups and can take many forms – written examinations with open or multiple-choice questions; one-to-one interviews and participation in group discussions; hands-on and experimental tasks; project work; research dissertations; and so forth. In all of these procedures, judgments can be made along a broad spectrum ranging from the use of narrow, strict criteria to very vague and subjective guidance. Predictably, the opinions and conclusions made by students, guardians, schools, universities and employers with regard to the significance and value of the information contained in assessment reports are frequently open to large discrepancies.

Educationalists have to consider the reason for an assessment as well as its modus operandi. For example, initial or base-line assessment is used to establish the abilities of pupils prior to starting a programme of work whereas summative assessment is intended to measure competences at the end of a course. Conversely, formative assessment has an important role to perform in monitoring advancement and to highlight improvements which are being implemented while coursework is still on-going. Two other approaches, worthy of note as they can be particularly helpful to students, are: (1) self-referenced assessment which enables them to measure advances against their previous standards during the interval from a designated starting point and (2) goal-based assessment to record the achievement of targets which previously had been set for, and understood by, individuals or groups.

Some cautionary notes

In practice, there is no single ideal means of gauging learners’ exact knowledge and understanding in common curricular areas, for instance, in language and literature, mathematics, scientific studies, the arts and technology. Similarly, this is true for notable human characteristics and qualities such as personality, general intelligence and employability. Even though nurseries, schools and further and higher educational institutions may place great significance on the outcomes of appraisals, caution is applicable in relation to their management at all ages and stages. A case in point would be excessive use of quantitative and psychometric tests which are often administered inappropriately. Probably some serve the interests of their publishers and professional test users much better than pupils or parents who can be confused or misled by what these methods pertain to demonstrate. An on-going problem with standardised measurements arising from personality profiles or details about intelligence is that they can reinforce the spurious notion that personal attributes and ability are fixed entities.

Other factors – such as the context in which examinations take place, the emotional stress levels of those being appraised, and the criteria for grades to be decided by assessors – regularly feature in civic deliberations. Moreover, there is the possibility of inherent bias being concealed within administrative processes as regards gender, social class or ethnicity. Undeniably, time and again, there is a strong case to be made for having very clearly-stated ‘health warnings’ issued along with formal assessment reports. Substantial caveats also apply to cumulative data collections which are analysed to make comparisons of results among schools as well as those gathered for the circulation of national statistics.  

Validity, reliability and usefulness

Despite there being recognisable difficulties and limitations, it seems to be generally agreed that to compute in a reasonably objective manner how students – or, for that matter, schools, education authorities and nations – are performing is a desirable goal. In spite of the urgency, it is unsurprising that this aim, with its various stumbling blocks and obstacles to overcome, continues to be mired in uncertainties and disagreements. Students from all backgrounds are the blameless victims of these predicaments. They deserve clarification and elucidation as assessment and its subsequent effects are matters of extreme importance to them. If satisfactory solutions are to be found, it is absolutely necessary for educationalists to be confident that approved procedures possess validity, reliability and usefulness. These three concepts are intricate and only a brief outline of them is provided in what follows.  

Validity relates to a calculation of any kind actually measuring what it claims to measure. Questions about how well everyday assessments really do judge targeted features need to be raised more often than is currently happening. Frequently, they are well wide of the mark in terms of accuracy, or in worse-case scenarios, they measure something else. In such circumstances, there is a pressing requirement to re-evaluate whatever approach is being undertaken. Currently, many assessments are largely, if not entirely, paper-based which raises questions regarding validity in relation to practical and life skills beyond educational establishments. Fixed, restricted conventions should be challenged if they are viewed as falling far short of determining competences appropriately. Public debate, including through the use of social media, should be encouraged to examine issues about how best to develop well-founded and justifiable arrangements for appraisals.   

In general, reliability is largely concerned with the extent to which an analysis provides consistent results in what it is measuring. One form of reliability, referred to as stability, is when there are consistent scores if repeated at different junctures. Features to be taken into consideration include the methods, frequency and organisation of assessments. An evaluation can be consistent but invalid through giving a constant result when repeated but, in reality, not measuring what is intended. Indeed, some tests are consistently invalid! At times, snags relating to validity and reliability may appear to be present simultaneously. For instance, coursework for national examinations with input largely completed by parents and tutors, or purchased over the internet as occasionally happens, would most likely not be of the same specification if it had been completed without any assistance. Likewise, tests undergone after a holiday period can indicate poorer academic performances than would have been the case if they had taken place at the end of term prior to vacation. In particular, it would be of no surprise to class teachers if they found this feature to be more marked for pupils from deprived backgrounds who did not have the same level of academic support as others while away from school.

What is often overlooked when debates rumble on about assessment is consideration of the usefulness of current practices. To meet the ‘utility’ criterion, assessors need to be able to show conclusively that the processes are genuinely worthwhile in terms of duration, costs and realistic gains. If they are a disservice to pupils’ and teachers’ efforts, too bureaucratic or of little value to stakeholders, why have them? All undertakings ought to guarantee trustworthy purposes which are clearly understood by recipients, including those who use the results when they are making decisions about students’ futures. Assessors – whether in educational establishments or industry – are in very influential positions. They have the power to arrive at conclusions which will impact on the life-long consequences of individuals. With such dominance comes great responsibility.

Prioritising the advantages of those teaching and taught   

From the perspective of learners, there are occasions when little or no thought seems to have been given to the suitability of common assessment practices. As indicated previously, the question which needs to be addressed is ‘What are the benefits for both those being taught and their teachers?’ For instance, sometimes arrangements and frequency in gauging practical skills should be more akin to driving tests for motor vehicles. Students could be assessed when they rate themselves ready and, if they do not reach appropriate prerequisites, have further opportunities to re-sit their examinations.

Additionally, pupils experiencing difficulties may achieve targets within their individualised educational programmes but have had unsatisfactory learning experiences while working towards them. As a result, they may be much less motivated to participate in forthcoming work or to proceed to the next stages. In this situation, what appears in a report to have been a success may actually have been detrimental to their further development.

For a comprehensive review of progress, a blend of mixed tactics may be necessary to obtain greater accuracy than, as often happens, results being devised after a nondescript, written and timed examination. Merely bestowing a number or a rating on levels of attainment can be very limited as to denoting further intellectual growth or applied expertise. Personalised profiles covering important features of potential, attainments and achievements can convey much more relevant and detailed information.

The introduction of new procedures should be designed with the key principle of enabling scholars to understand how to move forward in a positive fashion. Categorisation arising from judgments and decisions can so easily be the forerunner of an unintended form of stigmatisation. As previously indicated, a recurrent hazard – widely acknowledged – is that assigning grades brings with it the possibility of dispiriting students who either perceive themselves as failures or are labelled as such by others. Too much emphasis on testing, especially when students are ill-prepared, can lead to unnecessary pressure and anxiety. When supplementary forms of monitoring are planned, their efficiency ought to be substantiated beforehand rather than be introduced as a fad or political gesture. If, as is sometimes claimed by politicians, regular national tests of young pupils are helpful in ensuring that standards are being raised, then this assertion should be supported by well-documented research.  

Prevailing pressures on tutors can coerce them towards giving too much attention to quantitative methods of reporting at the expense of qualitative approaches. Discerning teachers realise that formative and dynamic assessment techniques are very advantageous in many ways to students of all ages. When evaluating achievements, there is much to be gained from objectively observing learners’ awareness and responsiveness, investigating their contributions, and listening to their explanations of what they feel they are accomplishing. Such courses of action can identify: superior learning strategies; productive work habits; successful incentives; the most effective forms of instruction; and the levels of intervention and support to fulfil potential abilities and giftedness.

One aspect in which traditional techniques fail significantly relates to the appraisal of complex competencies which are relevant – at times essential – with regard to inter-personal relationships and professional proficiency. For example, in both formal and informal assessment across age groups, know-how concerning decision-making, problem-solving, self-evaluation and cooperative work with others are often neglected. Nonetheless, such aspects of performance are highly valued by students themselves, educationalists and employers. Current practices require to be upgraded to address this significant weakness.


Ascertaining features about learners’ abilities, dexterity and personal traits can be highly functional and profitable in the enhancement of their educational experiences and progress. However, careful scrutiny and reflection are necessary in the formulation of guidelines. In turn, these always should be implemented in an appropriate, well-designed and purposeful manner.

High quality assessment has the following characteristics: (1) it has proven validity, reliability and usefulness; (2) its administration is undertaken by skilled and committed personnel who have received suitable training; (3) it provides substantial information, feedback and guidance which will augment the quality of learning and teaching; (4) its execution and outcomes are of benefit to all relevant stakeholders, particularly the students involved; (5) it has an apposite health warning, especially when it forms the basis of vital decisions about a student’s future.

Unfortunately, there are those with responsibilities for assessment within education who are fully aware of the failures and shortcomings of current practices but negligently continue to promote the status quo. While acknowledging the obstacles and challenges which they face, their report card perhaps should begin mischievously with that familiar, if unwanted, adage ‘Not good enough! Must do much better!’ – followed, of course, by positive and constructive suggestions on how matters could be considerably improved!  

(Frank O’Hagan previously was the Adviser of Studies to Bachelor of Education students at the University of Strathclyde. Later, he was a member of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education.)

Education for All Educational development Learning Teaching skills

Education Really Matters: Leadership in Education

Frank O’Hagan

Why is leadership in learning communities so important?

Despite conflicting views on the characteristics of effective leadership, it is a topic which cannot be ignored. Much depends on the personal, philosophical and ethical qualities of those who are charged with providing authentic advice and guidance. Deliberations also should focus on the framework in which they operate and undertake their responsibilities, with associated procedures and outcomes requiring to be kept under constant review. Given the countless on-going developments in practices, it is pertinent to take a systematic look at what stewardship in all aspects should entail.

Depending on the context, terms used in job descriptions such as leader, manager, chief education officer or director can be interpreted in differing ways. Regardless of positions or power, those concerned might be judged by their subordinates and others to be ‘enthusiastic’ or ‘pessimistic’, ‘helpful’ or ‘dispiriting’, ‘brilliant’ or even ‘downright evil’! There are numerous examples of inspiring leaders delivering improvements which result in happy, energetic environments. It is always gratifying to listen to cheerful narratives of this kind. Unfortunately, the deleterious ramifications arising from management which has malfunctioned are evident in many contemporary educational bodies. Very high standards may be expected but, like business and politics, education is strewn with administrators who have been catastrophic failures, bankrupt of constructive ideas.

The features underlying good execution of responsibilities require positive responses to certain key questions. Do managerial structures promote equity, inclusiveness, respect and confidence among all participants? Have leadership roles been shared or are they tightly controlled by a small faction? Is there a genuine awareness of and attention to the needs, views and aspirations of students, staff, parents, guardians and the local area? Has collective trust been established and enhanced? Is there a willingness to acknowledge mistakes, learn from them and make the necessary adjustments and advances?

When things might go astray

Progressive regulations enable working conditions and the pursuit of knowledge to be pleasurable and fruitful; the converse often results in stress, personal harm and the undermining of the growth of a vibrant culture. On occasions, inadequate governance of affairs can be characterised by a toxic mix of attributes with executives performing poorly while simultaneously manifesting a high estimation of their own abilities. Regrettably, but without doubt, some in positions of authority are incompetent though too inept to realise that this is the case.

There are various ways in which policymaking styles can produce umbrage among a workforce. For example, autocratic headteachers can be gruff and abrasive with insufficient patience to consider sensible or useful suggestions from within their organisations. Indeed, instances of ‘macho-management’ can provide notable illustrations of how to lose good staff! In contrast, there is what might be described as the laissez-faire administrator who takes a distant, hands-off approach leaving others to take on responsibility and, of course, the blame when events go askew. Charisma can certainly be an advantage but the charismatic leader may lack a value-based stance and can be regarded by staff as a charlatan if the initial alluring appeal falls short in delivering worthwhile outcomes. Yet another exemplar – the ‘invisible boss’ – relates to heads who confine themselves to their own offices or who are frequently away from their workplaces. It is particularly ironic for abandoned colleagues if, in their view, the reason for repeated absences is to attend self-development sessions in the quest for further promotion! Small wonder if such a lack of engagement leads to failures in acquiring a true grasp of the real hassles or the devious and subtle subplots at play under their radar. Neglect of duty breeds resentment.

Much more than interviews required before permanent appointments

It may appear surprising that many education officers and heads of educational establishments, despite having been viewed in previous posts as talented high flyers, fail to achieve success in new situations. It could that they conveyed a very good impression at interview (‘talking the talk’) but had not been adept at making headway in ‘real-life’ circumstances (‘unable to walk the walk’). If decisions are based mostly on performance during interviews, there is the possibility that those who have been appointed may have unintentionally misled their employers with false promises. After taking up their posts, they are not up to scratch in accomplishing commitments. Alternatively, they may have found themselves unexpectedly in an organisation with downcast and disheartened senior support staff. A debilitating culture prevailed and they did not possess the requisite drive and management skills to establish effective working relationships. Every derailment has its own story to tell.

There needs to be a reliable arrangement which guarantees robust and evidence-based reasons behind key appointments. These could be based on: careful scrutiny of personal and social qualities, such as in teamwork; proven achievements in previous positions of responsibility; and professional attributes relating to creativity, problem-solving, innovative practices and evaluation procedures. The decisive factor for confirming that the correct personnel have been selected begins with the appointees fully embracing their responsibilities and embarking on an improvement trajectory. They need to establish clearly that their priorities, judgements and implementation methods result in demonstrable progress for all concerned. On occasions, there will be justifiable reasons for tenures to be of a temporary nature until it is definite that selections are appropriate. At the same time, in order to be fair to them and with their wellbeing in mind, there also should be routes to allow them to return to previous posts in which they were proficient and comfortable.

Facing up to challenges

It is misleading to perceive learning communities as homogenous entities or to evaluate their ethos simply through public statements made by their promoted staff. The administration and structures, particularly in the larger settings, are generally complex. Additionally, guidelines, customs and traditions can be preset and inflexible. Recognising the intricacy and actuality of any establishment’s multifaceted nature provides a frank and straightforward basis on which to construct advancement and growth. There may well be individuals, groups or departments which are resistant or antagonistic towards change and prefer to remain within the limitations of their comfort zones. Such circumstances need to be addressed openly and agreements reached on how best to take processes forward in a strategic and purposeful fashion.

When an organisation begins to function poorly there is often a constellation of adverse factors leading predictably to the breakdown of everyday routines. A specific responsibility of leadership during periods of adjustment is to focus on the overall welfare of students and staff. Nevertheless, some senior managers have yet to realise that stress and tensions frequently arise from institutional factors, such as poor communication or inadequate guidance. Instead, in their mindsets, stress is regularly associated with personal defects related to designated tasks with the culpability lying squarely with the individual. However, even very proficient teachers can be subject to anxiety through no fault of their own. Skilled and sympathetic supervisory styles identify and address the true causes of unnecessary strains and pressures. These entail taking steps to prevent employee burnout, promote wellbeing and ensure that support is given when it is needed. Accomplished practitioners, at all levels, spend time and engage with others in finding solutions. They also are competent at reframing the sources of stress into a series of reasonable challenges which are acceptable to those encountering difficulties.

Towards a collegiate approach

The traits of those in power comprise a spectrum from hubris to humility. Overall, there is a strong case for maintaining that modesty prevails over arrogance in terms of desirability and long-term effectiveness. The qualities of self-effacement, honesty and compassion in leadership, though undervalued in practice, are often those which are remembered most fondly about our former bosses. It is unfortunate that some leaders who take up their new posts are full of the own self-worth and, on appointment, are needlessly too critical of the organisation over which they now wish to impose their control. They take pleasure in scoring easy points at the expense of previous administrations. Initially, their edicts may be greeted with guarded enthusiasm due to assurances of better times ahead. However, their over-confidence and disregard for the views of staff can be increasingly upsetting and gradually their influence wanes. Too much domination and insufficient partnership make an ill-starred combination.

Beware of the headteacher or principal who goes on about ‘my school’ or ‘my college’ rather ‘our school’ or ‘our college’. There may be not only be a profusion of ‘’my’ and ‘I’ in conversations but a lack of connectedness with others. Public pronouncements begin to resemble fake news with the sole aim of impressing their targeted audiences. To the onlooker, such forms of egocentric or hierarchical leadership can convey a sense of vanity and self-importance but might also indicate deeper problems. Sadly, behind masks of poise, assertion and egotism, there can lie feelings of insecurity and melancholy. In matters of leadership there is much room for a whole-hearted emphasis on collective and collaborative involvement in decision-making, with ‘we’ replacing ‘I’ on most occasions!

Education needs leadership at every level to provide responsible and efficient choices along with a value-based vision regarding confronting setbacks and bringing improvements into operation. Acting with honesty, fairness and integrity and relating with learners and colleagues in a principled manner form the foundation for thriving and harmonious working partnerships. A crucial quality during a time of transition is the promotion of a genuine sense of attachment and belonging throughout the entire learning environment. This upbeat outlook directly influences attendance, behaviour and achievement among students and for staff it enhances commitment to agreed aims, targets and policies. It acknowledges that, within and across groupings, shared leadership can be learned and nourished.

How educational communities and campuses benefit

There is a general acknowledgement that managers in education should be monitored and their decisions open to scrutiny and evaluation by independent observers. However, it is important to ensure that this viewpoint does not place exclusive attention on the expertise and impact of one person or of only promoted staff. The nature of modern systems demands the recognition that, if a campus is to become and remain successful, it will require a collective effort. What is needed is an unpretentious and integrated support network which entails staff accepting their professional responsibilities as executives concerning their own remits. Well-coordinated teamwork rather than autocratic control offers an alternative way of promoting both solidarity and accomplishments. Enlightened contemporary practices highlight the value of an all-encompassing collegiate modus which views stakeholders – including children, adolescents, parents and guardians – as having diverse leadership roles. This perspective enables everyone to contribute to generating and attaining truly flourishing and inclusive objectives.

Confident organisers do not blur the realities of their responsibilities or cause confusion through conveying ambiguous notions of how they wish to go forward. They are not afraid to communicate clearly and to ‘give away’ or ‘grow’ leadership skills. Not only do they share their ideas with others but also and, perhaps even more importantly, they create a climate in which alternative views and suggestions can be aired and debated. These traits are among the most distinguishing attributes of high-quality administration. Allowing – indeed encouraging – pupils, guardians and staff to contribute can present headships with challenges. However, listening to the ideas and suggestions of others should enhance ownership within designated sectors. It also can augment opportunities for creative thinking, problem-solving and evidence-based advances. The sincere cultivation of managerial roles and acceptance with regard to joint implementation of related responsibilities nurture and strengthen mutual interests within a cohesive group. In turn, enthusiasm and resilience are promoted among all involved and energise them in overcoming barriers to progress.

Concluding comments

Good management is characterised by the use of thoughtful courses of action which are:

  • candid and easily understood – as opposed to bureaucratic and confusing
  • achievable – distinct from multi-layered and overwhelming
  • open and accessible – not restricted or unavailable
  • empowering for everyone – in contrast to giving rise to feeling unimportant or afraid of being regarded as a failure.

This stance yields ideas which display respect for diversity and promote inclusiveness. Without exception, members of the learning community are encouraged to perceive themselves as agents of positive change. Well-judged initiatives guarantee that there is a pragmatic improvement plan which originates from an objective analysis of existing strengths and weaknesses and results in clarity of aims, appropriate short- and long-term targets, and forward-looking strategies for promoting motivation, scholarship and health. What is sometimes labelled in current jargon as a ‘vision statement’ should clearly summarise the aspirations of all, including parents and guardians.

Authentic trailblazers seek to uphold exemplary values and to share them with integrity and warmth. In doing so, they heartily sustain and reinforce high standards. Additionally, by presenting opportunities for the further development of expertise in leadership, they contribute to the collective capital wealth and wellbeing. Promoted staff have key roles to undertake within this process by ensuring that all stakeholders are valued and feel confident that they can carry out their obligations and assignments successfully.

In summary, purposeful leadership ensures the enhancement of professional satisfaction among everybody with accountability for delivering a meaningful curriculum. Simultaneously, it focuses on a united, communal approach towards establishing features related to personal worth. These include agency, self-belief, relevant attainments and achievements, life skills and emotional resilience among students of all abilities. Within a dynamic and cooperative ethos, staff have autonomy and conviction while undertaking their duties; students embrace and enjoy their studies and acquire pertinent competences. Ultimately, the essential qualities of a motivated and inspiring milieu must be that affirmative aspirations and activities are to be found at all levels of engagement within a secure, pleasant and civilised learning culture.  

(Frank O’Hagan previously was the Adviser of Studies to Bachelor of Education students at the University of Strathclyde. Later, he was a member of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education.)

The efficient usage of new technologies opens up worthwhile challenges for imaginative leaders to extend educational opportunities for learners of all abilities.
Education for All Educational development General Learning Teaching skills

Education Really Matters: Promoting Authentic Learning

Frank O’Hagan

Learning is for living and for life.

Building a culture of love for learning

When I was a young teacher, I remember a colleague reporting on his child’s first day at school. Let us refer to her as Scholastica for reasons which will become apparent. He and his wife, also a school teacher, had taken care to prepare Scholastica thoroughly for her formal entry into primary education, trying to make certain that she would respond enthusiastically and confidently to her early experiences. The infant class teacher also had made detailed plans to ensure that her precious beginners settled well into their new environment. Initially she gave them the freedom to chat, play and generally explore the classroom and its contents. However, before this first stage of the teacher’s planning was over, Scholastica stood in the middle of the room, hands on hips, and declared that these goings-on were all fine and good but wanted to know when the real learning would begin! 

This anecdote raises questions about the nature and value of ‘real learning’ – or of what might be described more appropriately as ‘authentic learning’. The concept can be interpreted and understood in differing ways depending on students’ perspectives. It is characterised by cognitive activities which are developmental, internalised, useful and practical. Furthermore, it has continuity in the sense that it supports and nurtures the acquisition of added knowledge and a deeper understanding of a topic. It is multi-faceted and certainly is not restricted by a single, formulaic procedure or method. Other features would include learners recognising their talents, advancing their comprehension, giftedness and wisdom, and accepting personal responsibility for making progress.

Of course, purposeful learning is by no means confined to what takes place in educational establishments. It is without boundaries. Active minds of both the young and old find enjoyment in seeking out and finding stimulating learning opportunities within their daily schedules. Learners of all ages can experience intellectual satisfaction through a wide variety of ordinary practices and pastimes. These range across reading, group discussions and watching television documentaries to partaking in computer-based and online learning, research and vocational training. Parents, guardians and teachers need to provide time, in terms of both quantity and quality, to listening to learners’ voices, interacting constructively with them and encouraging a love of learning. A hale and hearty society builds a culture in which all wish to extend their knowledge, skills and expertise.

Engagement and ownership

All enthusiastic scholars have the capacity to ‘learn how to learn’ more efficiently. Educationalists have to take a firm stand against the pursuit of superficial knowledge and be able to demonstrate to students that lessons, tutorials and study have both vital purposes and positive objectives. The impact of neurological factors on learning – for example, in relation to brain development, anxiety, stress and sleep deprivation – is rightly receiving close attention from researchers. Undoubtedly, there is a strong case against viewing learning as simply about cognitive and intellectual processes without also considering personal, emotional and social factors.

At all times, attention is required to ensure that students are neither overly bored nor anxious about their tasks. If they are placed unwillingly into academic or training programmes or fail to recognise the rationale behind what is being asked of them, their eagerness and motivation to move forward can easily fade. Well-expressed enthusiasm on the part of teachers can stimulate students and make lessons more enjoyable. On occasions, they may need time to allow for the incubation of fresh ideas prior to proceeding to the next stages of their syllabus. Related to taking ‘breaks’ is the importance of reflection on problems and hypotheses in the consolidation of new information and its practical applications. 

In worthwhile academic work, students are active contributors within the overall process and fully engaged in reaching both unexpected or planned outcomes. It cannot be the case of a sibling, teacher or lecturer merely dispensing facts and data. There needs to be genuine intellectual involvement on the part of recipients. Key features are ownership of and commitment to supportive learning pursuits which in turn lead to a better grasp of concepts and the development of more complex competences. Participation can include a multiplicity of cerebral and concrete tasks embracing lateral thinking, investigative assignments and verbal presentations. ‘Digital empowerment’ (or what might be referred to as CRISMATICS, namely proficiency in the use of Computers, Robots and Intelligent Software) opens opportunities for independent learning in areas of special interest. In particular, technological innovations relating to online, hybrid and blended learning have introduced significant prospects for efficacious and self-directed learning. (Please see the reference towards the end of this post.)

Curiosity, creativity, problem-solving

The evolution of an enquiring mind and outlook is another feature which is associated with successful learning. Encouraging research, evaluating findings and examining their own ideas and those of their peers are of consequence. Through such strategies students are enabled to widen their interests in new possibilities, are confident enough to discuss and analyse their efforts, and are willing to explore alternative ways of resolving puzzling issues. Albert Einstein (famous for his ‘thought experiments’) is said to have felt that familiar everyday creative actions were the foundation for highly significant innovative thinking. Although imaginative undertakings and group projects in classrooms are hardly expected to lead to the status of international breakthroughs(!), they undoubtedly are able to act as a catalyst for building up learners’ curiosity and sense of wonder. They can provide motivation to master exploratory techniques and problem-solving methodologies and to delve further into a specific theme or curricular area. However, endorsement in itself may not be sufficient. Skilful questioning by teachers can ascertain what students truly know, prompt them to correct inaccuracies and deepen their levels of understanding.

In contrast, to be avoided at all costs is the occurrence of what the mathematician and philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, famously called ‘inert knowledge’ and ‘inert ideas’. These terms refer to aspects of information which are acquired by learners without a true grasp of their usefulness. They may only serve an inconsequential purpose and can be of a very momentary nature. Cramming reluctantly at the last minute for an examination, only to forget everything shortly after it is over, could be viewed as fitting  into the description of ‘inert knowledge’. To keep knowledge alive, Whitehead felt that it needed to enable learners to undertake effective problem-solving in real-life conditions. Indeed, through an understanding of the faults and failings of inculcating ‘inert ideas’, teachers can appreciate more clearly the genuine value of developing effective tactics to promote indisputable and valid advancement. When engagement in learning is a delightful and satisfying enterprise, the process can build up a dynamic momentum which leads to fresh aspirations and endless possibilities.

The joys of investigation, discovery and verification

A method which can be found to result in augmenting learning is commonly referred to as ‘discovery learning’. This approach focuses mainly on the process of enhancing pupils’ achievements and understanding through providing them with opportunities to explore and find out facts and results by themselves or in groups. In its purest form, advocates adopted a highly non-interventionist mode and, in some instances, this kind of methodology is still to be found. Criticisms of very open-ended pedagogic styles were that they turned out to be too time-consuming within an already crowded curriculum and that learners’ so-called discoveries were frequently inaccurate or frivolous. Certainly such risks exist. Of course, it should not be assumed that children and young people are able to investigate or detect everything; advances in human ingenuity generally build on what others already have ascertained.

Nonetheless, worth consideration as an alternative to a simplistic over-emphasis on unadorned discovery tactics is what might be termed ‘guided discovery’. For example, if required, learners would be given judicious hints, nudges or assistance along learning pathways. Since they may not be able to make progress without suitable backing, lucid instructions on how to move ahead from their prior knowledge will generate success. As a result of the incremental building of self-confidence, they benefit from asking Socratic questions about what they are learning and seek solutions to any inconsistencies or flaws. In time, due to increases in their abilities and autonomy, they can make more rapid steps forward through their own self-regulating endeavours in fact-finding, testing and presentation.

Learning across the curriculum

The need for effective learning and teaching extends across all subjects. We can find many pertinent instances of integrated strategies within any curricular area. The following brief example relating to aspects of personal, social and health education in supplementing some helpful features of life skills and general wellbeing is offered for scrutiny.

Thoughtful tutorials can enable pupils to develop a critical awareness of the messages with which they are targeted through advertising in the media or from reports on political and public affairs. Should they believe what advertisers, politicians, celebrities or, for that matter, some ‘scientists’ are proclaiming? Let’s face it – there is a great deal of spurious and untested information coming their way on a daily basis. Through examining the views and the points being conveyed, they can be asked to explore the intentions of the authors and pundits. If they feel that there are defects in what is being stated, they can proceed to re-examine opinions and identify how much might be exaggerations, inaccuracies, conjectures or misleading assumptions. Cultivating such thinking skills is particularly important if it becomes obvious that there has been a covert aim to encourage them to engage in careless financial practices or to entice them towards dubious or unwanted distractions. Such deliberations illustrate that there are many variables at play in fostering meaningful learning. They also signal the usefulness not only of well-founded knowledge and understanding of specific curricular subjects but also the merits of life and employability skills.

 More ‘real-life’ research requires to be undertaken directly within normal school and learning environments rather than in more remote experimental settings. A greater emphasis on evidence-based findings which identify best conditions, including the application of new technological study programmes, for individual and group learning is necessary. Appropriate explorations would include ascertaining the most productive ways of organising scientific studies for adolescents and how to enable young pupils to overcome cognitive and emotional aspects of anxiety linked with the learning of language or mathematics. Some research findings might lead to dramatic progress in curricular areas as could be the accumulative impact of a variety of small but germane improvements. All trainee and qualified teachers should be supported in further advancing their proficiency as practitioner-researchers to enable them to boost and enrich their cherished ‘learning communities’.

Concluding comments

Learning experiences generally require a set of prerequisites which enable them to be successful and effective. These can comprise personal attributes, the structure of programmes of study, the quality of support provided, and family and environmental influences. When optimum conditions reign, valuable outcomes such as self-knowledge, a thirst for relevant information and understanding, objectivity, open-mindedness and creative flexibility are likely to blossom. Personal characteristics of this kind will ensure that learners can adapt swiftly and appropriately to evolving and differing innovations, discoveries and occupations. Promoting constructive learning styles across all sectors of society is an immense challenge which every nation should welcome and champion. Significant cultural shifts towards meeting this commendable aspiration should be agreed by all as a highly desirable priority.

Key features of authentic learning for children, adolescents and adults, regardless of their ages, abilities or social backgrounds, include:

  • feeling valued and respected within well-planned and stimulating tutorial sessions and other inspiring settings
  • being able to listen, pay attention and take account of the ideas, suggestions and advice of trusted friends and teachers
  • developing versatility in comprehending instructions and tasks and in responding appropriately and imaginatively in different situations
  • having the self-belief and confidence to contribute in both individualised and group activities in order to achieve worthwhile attainments and achievements
  • participating enthusiastically in creative and lateral thinking, experimentation, problem-solving work, independent computer-based activities and online seminars
  • personalising approaches towards scholarship and erudition while accepting that at times learning can be challenging and needs to be perceived as an essential life-long process  
  • embracing a culture which is value-based and encourages the acquisition of useful knowledge, in-depth understanding and an array of transferrable skills for everyday living in a changing world.

Reference: For an article on making the most of online, hybrid and blended learning, please use the following link:

Footnote: I wonder what became of Scholastica who clearly was an able and wholehearted learner. I do hope that she found success and satisfaction in pleasant and agreeable undertakings throughout her school career and beyond. Perhaps she became a headteacher or university professor and played a major role in promoting authentic learning for all her students. Assuredly, that is what headteachers and professors do. Don’t they? 

The human mind benefits from lifelong learning opportunities to advance and flourish.

(Dr Frank O’Hagan previously was the Adviser of Studies to Bachelor of Education students at the University of Strathclyde. Later, he was a member of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education.)

Education for All Educational development General Teaching skills

Education Really Matters: In Praise of Inspirational Teachers

Frank O’Hagan

Great expectations

It is no surprise that we regularly come across judgements about teachers at the school gate or in the media. Members of the public frequently express an opinion about the overall state of teaching and education, perhaps highly influenced by their own experiences while at school, college or university. Describing any teacher as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is often unfair and too simplistic. Such evaluations can easily overlook the complexity of both teaching and learning in everyday practices.

In general, government, education authorities and parents appear to accept, at least tacitly, that teaching is a demanding vocation. Nonetheless, high standards are expected from all stakeholders. A consummate challenge for teachers to-day is to perform effectively and consistently regardless of social factors or quantity of resources. If, as is often said, teaching is both an art and a science, how do we decide on what are the qualities to be most valued? There are formal criteria for assessing teachers but here the aim is to explore the issue of how teaching styles can be perceived within a more wide-ranging civic perspective.

From a discerning public position, effective teachers are those who create stimulating learning contexts for their lessons, taking due account of their students’ ages and abilities. They provide well-judged opportunities to extend learners’ knowledge, understanding and skills while monitoring and assessing achievements at individual and group levels. They use their expertise and experience to plan how best to motivate pupils, making sure to integrate ideas securely within the syllabus being followed. In order to maintain continuous progress, they adopt a flexible and open-ended approach so that they are able to adjust programmes of study with regard to content, pace, outcomes and context. By no means should these capabilities be regarded as trivial or easy. They are challenging and require intelligent, astute and sensitive decision-making and implementation.

Challenges and potential pitfalls

The demands on teaching professionals are constantly changing and on occasions it is difficult for them to keep abreast of developments. If this is the case, think of the confusion which can befall students, parents and employers. As specialists, dedicated teachers are not afraid of innovation. However, they are aware of the need to look out for unnecessary fads or gimmicks which are publicised commercially but are of little value to children and young people. From time to time, they will be willing to undertake potential risks in using new teaching materials and methods, evaluating their worth in the process. They also will allow or encourage their students to adopt a similar stance as in extending their personal skills through independent, computer-based learning, for example if appropriate, in the effective use of massive open online courses (MOOCs). This open-minded, philosophical outlook will be evident in their attitudes and practices. To paraphrase the views of that outstanding Scottish scientist, James Clerk Maxwell, the committed teacher’s standpoint is: “I would never dissuade young people from trying an experiment; if they do not find out what they want, they may discover something else.

There are two false dichotomies which need to be confronted and clarified when teachers’ contributions are being judged. The first is linked to the unhelpful dispute concerning which is the more important – learning or teaching. It has echoes of the alleged medieval debate about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Learning and teaching can be seen as two sides of the same complex process within classrooms or lecture theatres. Investigations show that both are significant and perhaps we should leave it at that. Stated simply, a principal focus of teaching is on high quality learning by students, coupled with a genuine concern for their personal and social wellbeing. 

A second debate relates to the issue of the value of theoretical knowledge versus skills. Even when I was training to be a teacher – sadly long, long ago – I recall reading a treatise against skills. There was an elitist view – which unfortunately can still be found today – that skills were somehow inferior to knowledge. This regrettable opinion may remind readers of the supposed time when some colonial grandees felt that the British Empire could best be run by classics graduates with Oxbridge backgrounds. It is necessary for teaching to include principles, facts and skills, with the development of practical competences being neglected at society’s peril. All these features are intertwined and improve through study, application, experimentation and creativity. Proficient educators ensure that young people have suitable and up-to-date opportunities to advance in a broad and integrated manner.

Support for students

Steady progress towards personal, long-term targets are often more important for a pupil than test results and can provide a secure pathway to later academic success. Professional expertise helps in promoting pupils’ belief and confidence in their own abilities and competences. It facilitates the creation of positive mindsets regarding further attainment and enhances multi-faceted progress.

As well as students’ individual achievements, the main aims of education must address the collective needs of society. Well-judged group activities on communal issues identified by pupils – employment, human rights, homelessness, pollution etc. – can endorse a sense of citizenship and social responsibility. (A bonanza for teachers is that they can learn about topics in greater depth through preparing for and then implementing their lessons and tutorials!) There will be occasions when pupils can internalise information and concepts more fully by being asked to make presentations to their peers on matters which they have researched. Building motivation and encouraging upbeat attitudes concerning teamwork, resilience and planning for the future are on-going duties which require constant vigilance. They are among the most valued characteristics of the gifted educator. 

Account also needs to be taken about the specific obstacles which students – depending on their age, ability and social backgrounds – may experience in diverse curricular areas. Subtle, varying approaches and strategies are often required regarding learning and teaching in different subjects such as history, art and design, mathematics and technology. Indeed, further meticulous research is needed to ascertain how best to structure and present programmes of study in various components of the curriculum, including in computing and science education.  

At times, teachers have to support students in confronting their negative feelings about academic setbacks and provide guidance for them to triumph over barriers to learning and progress. Through their flair in identifying difficulties and advising on learning strategies, they can assist students in building what might be termed ‘intellectual buoyancy’ – their ability and determination to come back from disappointments and to overcome challenges of different kinds.

A passing thought: Albert Einstein, one of the greatest minds of the 20th century, does not appear to have been regarded as a truly exceptional student at school or higher education. However, he did make some thoughtful comments on the nature of teaching, for instance: “It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.” He clearly believed in this vital role bestowed upon teachers.     

Support for staff

Educationalists are greatly assisted in being able to sustain high-quality practical skills if they look after their own physical and mental health. Amid the pressures placed on education in today’s society, teachers need to be to be alert and resilient in maintaining their vigour and wellbeing. Stress, at an individual’s optimal level, can be a positive factor in increasing motivation and engagement when undertaking tasks. However, there are many potentially harmful features which can impact on performance. These may include a toxic combination of disruptive behaviour in class, rapid changes in the curriculum or assessment procedures, an endless demand for higher standards in formal examinations and, at times, over-demanding parents or administrators. All teachers need to be knowledgeable about how to identify threats to their mental health and to make effective use of ways to combat them. 

Lifestyles which embrace a healthy balance across work and leisure, support from trusted colleagues, and the use of individualised therapies can have a central role in maintaining confidence and positive attitudes regarding teachers’ daily duties. Importantly, staff should not regard undue stress as simply belonging to them alone or always occurring because of personal traits which indicate their fault. Excessive workloads arising from organisational failures within disorderly environments require to be examined in such circumstances. Effective managers are skilled at recognising stumbling blocks, taking steps to reduce unnecessary tensions and building job satisfaction through improving the ethos in which their staff are expected to operate.

In fairness to teachers in all sectors of education, it should be emphasised that promoting affirmative outlooks, fostering a love of learning and ensuring academic success are not simply their responsibility. Although these characteristics should be fundamental and central within all educational settings, they also must stretch far beyond their boundaries. Education must never be viewed as the exclusive property or responsibility of schools, colleges or universities. No classroom, lecture theatre or institution is an educational island; flourishing links with and support from local communities, the general public, industry and government are paramount. 

If a country wishes to raise accomplishments in specific curricular areas or across all subjects, then there needs to be a positive, collective agenda for improvement. To a large extent, a noble endeavour of this kind often requires cultural changes – not only within individual classes but at whole-school and societal levels. Momentum will be accelerated if, as a nation, a much more forthright approach is taken towards recognising, sponsoring and paying tribute to first-rate benchmarks reached in learning and teaching. The plain truth is that capable teachers help to create excellent centres of learning which, in turn, facilitate and foster tolerance, respect and economic development amongst the wider society.


What then contributes towards becoming an inspirational teacher or does it simply depend on whom you ask? Although one may come across various zany answers, there appears to be some overall agreement with regard to the following characteristics. 

Talented educationalists:

  • are skilled at motivating, organising and assessing
  • care about ensuring that their teaching styles are exemplary and that students benefit from the instructional episodes which they have planned
  • build from ‘where scholars are at’ and provide clear, helpful feedback on strengths and progress to all relevant stakeholders, particularly those learners for whom they are directly responsible
  • are leaders within their class or subject area but willingly ‘give away’ their knowledge and expertise
  • encourage their students to cultivate self-belief, confidence, open-mindedness and independent learning skills within the complex and evolving requirements of modern cultures
  • believe in the importance of research and development in education, in improving their own professional competences, and in evaluating in an honest manner their successes and disappointments as regards the raising of standards concerning potential, attainment and achievement.
Education is not filling a bucket; but lighting a fire.” (Willian Butler Yeats)

Key questions and issues for further consideration

Does society sufficiently value and commend those teachers who consistently perform above and beyond the formal requirements of their profession? Is the autonomy of teachers being eroded through the imposition of unnecessary bureaucracy and market-led directives? How can schools and learning environments adjust to the rapidly changing circumstances of contemporary society?

Nothing stands still, including the demands made concerning methods of tutoring and the acquisition of knowledge and skills. The delivery of education for all is creaking from many pressures. Further ground-breaking means of utilising technological advances should continue to be developed for both within educational establishments and beyond the normal school day. How can these innovations be used more effectively in the promotion of the principles and attributes underling high quality teaching? How best can students benefit from them in more practical, accessible and flexible ways?

(Dr Frank O’Hagan previously was the Adviser of Studies to Bachelor of Education students at the University of Strathclyde. Later, he was a member of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education.)