From CleverLands to CleverClassrooms

Like many teachers around the country I have spent the last week devouring CleverLands by Lucy Crehan (Stephen Tierney’s excellent post here is well worth a look on his response). This book is her account of visiting 5 countries that are considered to have highly performing education systems: Finland, Singapore, Japan, China (Shanghai) and Canada. She spent a year visiting these countries, staying with teachers, visiting schools and talking to students and parents about their experiences. She also picks through the reams of educational research on why some countries seem to outperform others. 


It is a wonderful book that neatly combines my twin passions of Geography and Education but it is also somewhat depressing reading; sat here in England, as a teacher stuck in a system that seems more removed from these successful countries than ever. There has been much discussion about whether it is possible to apply much from these systems to our own; and it is a theme that Lucy Crehan herself makes time and time again. So much of what makes education successful in these countries is rooted it their culture and the values of these societies. Ben Newmark makes the point on his blog with a typically thoughtful post “Why copying other counties won’t work“. The point is interesting but somewhat moot. Due to some sort of oversight I don’t seem to be in change of education in England and have a shocking lack of influence of what passes for policy at the Department for Education. Where I do have some influence though is in my classroom, department and school.

The book reaches its conclusion with 5 common principles followed by successful education systems, and I think it is here that we can find hope for the future – and ideas we can implement on a local scale.

  1. Get children ready for formal education. We can do this by ensuring that we have set the right tone as soon as students start with us in Year 7. Consistent systems need to be explained to them along with the role that they will play in them. We need to make sure that we make our expectations clear from the moment they set foot in our classroom/department/school. They should be able to feel the culture we have created. 
  2. Design curricular concepts for mastery. Summer Turner’s book on curriculum and assessment design is invaluable here. We need to ensure that we have a clear sequence of learning that takes pupils from their first lesson with us to the last (in fact I’d suggest starting with this end point and working backwards). We need to be aware of the threshold concepts and knowledge that pupils need in our subject in order to progress and put in place regular knowledge tests to ensure that they are secure in these areas. 
  3. Support children to take on challenges. One common trait in the successful schools visited in CleverLands was a belief that all students should access the same curriculum and that pupils who fell behind should be helped to catch up; rather than given easier work so that they fell further behind. This is a principle I really took away from reading Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby’s book Make Every Lesson Count and have increasingly applied it to my own teaching. Students need to be shown excellent work and be supported in achieving this level. We need to show them that they can be successful so as to develop a grow mindset. Alongside this we need to provide enrichment opportunities for the most able to stretch and challenge them. 
  4. Treat teachers as professionals. The comes across very strongly in CleverLands in every country visited. Teachers have far more non-contact time and far more opportunities for CPD. There is a culture of supportive peer observation and collaboration. Teachers are expected to engage in educational research and keep up to date in their subjects. They are trusted to do these things. This is a difficult principle to apply to ourselves but we can start by at least seeing ourselves as professionals and behaving accordingly. The Chartered College of Teaching is giving all its members access to educational research and journals. TeachMeets can be organised. We can meet after school to plan together or to share books we have read. It is difficult when time isn’t given to these activities but by collaborating carefully we can feee up time to collaborate even further. 
  5. Combine school accountability with school support. Again, this is a difficult one to apply as an individual teacher but we can certainly do it as a department. We can make sure that all our discussions about performance management and staff development are supportive rather than punitive and we can encourage this principle in discussions with SLT. “You are concerned about X? Thank you for bringing it to my attention. How can you support me with this?”

I am sure that Ben Newmark and others are right when they say that we can’t simply import a successful education system and impose it onto our culture but there are clear elements of successful practice that we can learn from and implement. In many ways this is a bleak time for education in England but let’s make our own classrooms, departments and schools beacons of hope. Let’s make them mini-CleverLands.

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