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Education for the individual

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  • Picture of Sarah Cottenden FRSA
    Sarah Cottenden FRSA
  • Education

In 2018 Sarah Cottenden FRSA set out to discover more about one new approach to schooling in the US.

She argues that placing the individual at the heart of our education system should be a critical priority in the UK and beyond.

My educational background is varied. As a child I attended English state schools and went on to university. I have taught in the UK and abroad, in state and private settings and visited schools in different countries pursuing my passion for education reform. As my world expanded, my eyes were increasingly opened to a broader spectrum of local and world society. These experiences have led me to a simple conclusion: Our whole education system needs to change. But change to what?

I started to uncover the answer in the summer of 2018 when I was approached by a Fellow of the RSA. He had been introduced to an educational, not-for-profit organisation called the Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC) and its founder, Scott Looney. Intrigued by what he had heard and learned, the Fellow asked me to visit the Hawken School, in Cleveland, Ohio, US, where Scott Looney was Head of School.

My pre-reading and research about the MTC and the school brought me hope. The school’s website ‘strapline’ boldly states “Get ready to do school differently,” and this is – to a large extent – what I found during my two-day visit covering all stages from kindergarten to high school. So much of what I discovered amazed me, and is best summed up by my reflective note: “The children and faculty members were engaged in learning, being part of a community, socialising etc. in a way I’ve never seen before. I found the school to be relaxed and personable, calm and purposeful.” I left the visit transfixed on the knowledge that there really was a living and breathing alternative to the UK’s ‘one size fits all’ approach to schooling and examinations. 

My visit to Cleveland and the Hawken School provided context for reflection on my own schooling and career in education. Seeing a model that balanced high institutional expectations with a nimble approach, that celebrated and supported the varied and diverse skills and interests of the individual students, helped me realise that how assessment is done in any school largely dictates how teaching and learning had to be done. If the ultimate accolade and objective is the single A’ Level grade, a score that determines higher education placement, future job prospects, and even self-image, then everything in the way school is structured must logically be geared toward test preparation; from beginning to end of the educational journey.

Core to the philosophy of Hawken is the work of MTC, originally the brainchild of Scott Looney, but has since grown into a global entity with over 375 member schools. Formally launched in March 2016, MTC is a growing network of public and private schools. All are introducing a digital high school transcript that opens up opportunity for each and every student – from all backgrounds, locations, and types of schools – to have their unique strengths, abilities, interests, and histories fostered, understood and celebrated. It provides schools the flexibility and support necessary to think differently about how they assess and capture their students' growth without reducing the complex and unique individuals in their care to a single grade or number. The organisation has won grants and endorsements from leading researchers, universities and employers worldwide. 

Allowing for a rigorous yet benign way to assess the students in our sphere of influence without one set of exam results being the Holy Grail, MTC is a resource that can help schools create rounded students by supporting design of a curriculum that is both broad and deep. As Einstein said “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” Examples of ‘alternative’ approaches to education, such as Dalton, Montessori, Steiner and Regio Emilia schools, are predicated on the fact that children learn driven by their curiosity and at their own pace: all focus on child-led inquiry learning. Teachers are facilitators and co-collaborators on a learning journey. The work of the New Zealand professor John Hattie on visible learning speaks powerfully into this discussion.

As research confirms, students learn best – and are healthiest in body and mind – when they are active participants partnering with talented faculty/wider community members on work that matters to them. Rote exam preparation does not inspire this type of engagement. Therefore, we need broad skill-based opportunities where knowledge and skills are naturally acquired encouraging students to make real world connections whilst developing and combining essential life skills. This seems to me to encapsulate the MTC approach to learning: mastery learning if you will. Succinctly put “at its core, mastery learning enables students to move forward at their own pace as they master knowledge, skills, and dispositions.”

Over 80 US universities accepted students from MTC member schools last year. This current academic year that number will more than triple as the number of MTC member schools using the transcript in the university application process increases. MTC has now expanded beyond the US and partner schools are in 21 countries around the world including the UK.

Covid-19 has provided a unique opportunity to choose to say ‘no more’ to our ‘one size fits all’ approach to schooling in the UK: what some call averagarianism.  As a recent article from the Edge Foundation notes: “We are once again locked down, and the government has just announced that exams will again be cancelled. This poses an important question: if we can get through two years without exams, why insist on high-stakes testing at all?”

Although my schooling taught me important facts and figures, teachers who took a specific interest in me have surely had the greatest lasting influence. How what I was being taught joined up or would help me when I left school, I could rarely fathom. Individuality, well there was little time made for that. Reflection – amongst other interpersonal/life skills – was not mentioned until university. Within many school leaving systems, I would not have graduated: I cannot do long multiplication or division let alone calculus. But, surely the school system worked, as I passed my A’ Levels, graduated from a world-leading university and have a successful career, right? Individuality: is that really important in schooling?

If the ultimate aim of schooling is A’ Level results, then we have reached its zenith. However, if we agree that there is more to life than grades and what university one attends, then we need to stop and have a deep hard think. Is our education system fit for purpose in 2021 and beyond?

As a society we have a moral responsibility to prepare our children for the ever changing world we live in by walking through life with them now and remembering the words of the American philosopher, psychologist and educationalist John Dewey: “education is a process of living, not a preparation for future living”. We have no legitimate reason why not to have a complete rethink about our entire education system, as groups such as Rethinking Assessment are, and to act on readily available and highly documented education research. The way the MTC – amongst others – are modelling a living and breathing viable approach to schooling is testament to brave individuals who have dared to imagine and put into practice an education system based on the individual.

Every child is born with their own unique skills, attributes and personality that society gets to nurture through to maturity. To implement an education system that puts the individual at its core is attainable and desirable and needs to be adopted as a societal priority.

If you’re interested in learning more, there are a few options. Rethinking assessment and The Edge Foundation are great places to learn more and join in the conversation. Also, if you’re interested in learning more about the MTC, then please contact me via twitter or through the comments section.

Sarah Cottenden is a teacher and crafter who loves to see individuals thrive. She is a passionate advocate for education reform. @sarahcottenden

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  • This is a really interesting article. I am currently an English teacher and one of my key frustrations is that I often feel I am teaching to prepare students for their exams; although we strive to provide a varied, engaging and exploratory curriculum, the extent of content that needs to be covered is vast and I do feel that the exams are not enabling success for lots of our students. I am soon to move out of the classroom and would like to influence education on a larger scale. I would love to learn more and hear about any further projects/ research you are doing in this area.

  • Thanks for your comments. Very interesting to read your thoughts on applying the issues I’ve raised in your area of expertise.

  • Thank you Sarah for some good insights. In my domain of technical and science education, I find the most common barriers to real learning are, firstly, excess breadth and insufficient depth of the syllabus leading to lack of understanding of underlying principles, secondly, failure to connect multiple separate parallel subject streams into a coherent whole that illuminates them as parts of a global picture, and thirdly, weak connection between imparted facts and their real world significance. In my experience, these failings commonly result in mere cramming with disconnected facts to be regurgitated at exam time and forgotten immediately afterwards. As well as introducing them to subject matter, we should be helping young people prepare themselves for autonomous lifelong learning by encouraging the development of talents such as perception, exploration, intuition and attention. The process should be creative and joyful, not boring and monotonous.