Book Review: Cleverlands by Lucy Crehan

The main headline is that this book is a fascinating read. Lucy Crehan goes on a journey to visit a few of the countries that like to hang about towards the top end of the PISA rankings, to see what (if anything) can be learned from the education systems. A great exploration of of the cultures and education systems of Finland, Singapore, Shanghai, Japan and Canada throw up a number of contrasting attitudes and approaches to education. Interestingly, the book shatters a few misconceptions about some education systems, for example that children in Singapore are put off by rote learning and memorisation, whereas the research quoted shows that they are happier at school than pupils in the UK. Crehan also points out the benefits of acquiring a domain-specific knowledge before pupils then go on to apply that knowledge in new situations (the OECD recently questioned the balance between knowledge and skills in Scotland). From her travels, Crehan identifies the following five principles which have the potential to improve education: 

Principle 1: Get Children Ready for Formal Learning 

This principle suggests that there is little benefit to starting formal education too soon, and that there are benefits to be gained from ensuring that children are ready to learn before starting their formal education. This ties in nicely with the recent debates about an extended kindergarten stage in Scotland. Crehan points out that the pre-school stage needs to be well resourced and supported to ensure success – something which will need to be kept in mind if Scotland decides to take this approach. She also suggests giving teachers and pupils a 10-15 minute break between lessons, and ensuring that schools are resourced with professionals who can support pupils’ non-academic needs. 

Principle 2: Design Curricula Concepts for Mastery (and Context for Motivation) 

Crehan makes the suggestion that we should have a national core curriculum that specifies that knowledge and skills that pupils should learn at each stage of their education. This isn’t to suggest that teachers/schools should have no autonomy – only the specific concepts to be leaned would be specified, not the context or pedagogy (in contract to CfE which specifies ‘experiences’ as well as ‘outcomes’). For example, it could be specified that pupils should know about changes of state, but the curriculum wouldn’t specify of this should be taught in the context of ice cream melting or while learning about the water cycle, or any other context. Crehan also suggests that the curriculum should focus on fewer topics, but address these topics in more depth so that pupils can achieve mastery (I’ve always thought that the BGE Sciences curriculum and the SQA Chemistry NQs contain too many topics, meaning that there is less depth). The curriculum should also have a logical order based on research into how pupils’ learn. However, Crehan also rightly points out that any autonomy given to schools will be pointless if too much importance is given to external exams. 

Principle 3: Support Children to Take on Challenges, Rather than Making Concessions 

Crehan says that to support the learning of ALL pupils, there should be no setting or streaming before the age of 15 or 16, and any decisions with pupils about whether they should follow an academic or vocational pathway should also be delayed until this time. There should also be small group support for children who require extra support and also for those pupils who require extra challenge. 

Principle 4: Treat Teachers as Professionals 

This principle was a key one for me, as it’s my opinion that teachers in Scotland need to be treated more like the professionals that they are. Some of the suggestions made by Crehan are already enacted in Scotland, for example teacher education should be a rigorous programme of at least one year, recognised by a professional body, and include the development of pedagogical content knowledge. She also suggests that newly qualified teachers should have a reduced teaching load and a dedicated mentor. This sounds very much like our Teacher Induction Scheme in Scotland, however, what we don’t have in Scotland is a reduced teaching load for the mentor, which Crehan suggests (and sounds like a fantastic suggestion). Teachers should also have plenty of opportunity to plan and evaluate lessons in small teams (sounds like a great use of time for a promised extra 90 minutes of non-contact time for Scottish teachers). 

Principle 5: Combine School Accountability with School Support (Rather Than Sanctions) 

Crehan points out that in some countries a poor school inspection can result in the removal of senior leaders from the school. Crehan view is that inspection should then be followed by support, not punishment, and that a network of former school leaders should be used to provide support and advice to school leaders. There should also be incentives for good teachers and middle leaders to work in struggling schools. Some of the countries that Crehan visited had schools working together in clusters. 

Overall, this book is well worth a read. Crehan rightly points out that what started this work was an interest in these countries’ PISA scores, which only measure Maths, Reading and Science in 15-year-olds. However, she found that these top performing countries also had a varied curriculum and developed the whole child.  I wish I’d read it before submitting my responses to the current National Conversation about the future of education in Scotland.