What is Pedagogical Knowledge and Does it Matter?

Its the specialised knowledge of teachers in creating and facilitating effective teaching and learning environments for all students, independent of subject matter

Improving student outcomes depends on improving the quality of the teaching workforce and the quality of teaching.

Empirical research tells us that teacher quality is an important factor in determining gains in student achievement, even after accounting for prior student learning and family background characteristics.

So, it follows ,its important that energy, resources and incentives are directed   to improving the quality of teacher education and training. Although teachers’ education starts in ITT,  the reality is its  a lifelong process.  After all, if you are a member of any Profession, you are expected to have had a lengthy period of specialised training, as well as continuous professional development. And Teaching is a Profession.

An increase in the quality of teacher education and professional development, throughout the career (CPD) can contribute to an increase in student achievement through more effective teaching.  So giving access and support for teachers to regular,  high quality professional development is important.  Teachers are expected to process and evaluate (and be supported in this) new knowledge relevant for their core professional practice, and to regularly update their profession’s knowledge base.  Hence the concept (now a mantra) of ‘ research informed practice’. This means using high quality research about effective classroom interventions,  and combining it  with teachers’ professional judgment, to improve teaching practice and student learning. In short,  relying on research alone  is not seen as sufficient , as it underplays the potential importance of teachers’ professional experience. As teachers observe and reflect on student learning in the classroom, their decisions are influenced not only by a well -established knowledge base but also by their real-time experience.

Research is important. It can  tell us what works. For example, the work of John Hattie (2009), who conducted a synthesis of educational research studies, looked at which teaching practices had the most influence on student learning, and which didn’t.    Research is also telling us much more about how students learn, the difference between knowledge and information, how knowledge sticks, and how our memories work. There are learning strategies that have been identified, that clearly  aid the process of memorisation and knowledge retention, which is at the heart of learning.   The corollary of this is that this  also means dumping some traditional  practice that evidence shows has little ,or no effect on students learning.

We frequently hear the term ‘ Pedagogy’  or ‘Pedagogical Knowledge’ when referring to the nitty gritty or ‘ skills ‘ of teaching. Its accepted that a high level of pedagogical knowledge is essential for  competent teaching. So it really does matter. But what does this  mean?

The OECD has defined general pedagogical knowledge as ‘the specialised knowledge of teachers in creating and facilitating effective teaching and learning environments for all students, independent of subject matter ‘.  So we are talking about Teachers’ specialised professional knowledge that enables them to teach, and their students to learn.This knowledge is not simply acquired in teacher training.

Shulman (1986, 1987) proposed a typology of teachers’ knowledge base comprised of seven categories, of which ,the OECD suggests,  three have been particularly influential to further research:

First, general pedagogical knowledge (principles and strategies of classroom management and organisation that are cross-curricular)

Second, content knowledge (knowledge of subject matter and its organising structures)

Third, pedagogical content knowledge (knowledge of content and pedagogy).

So what about the specific content of Pedagogical Knowledge?

A review of empirical evidence on teachers’ general pedagogical knowledge concluded three main overlapping components:

 instructional process (teaching methods, didactics, structuring a lesson and classroom management)

 student learning (cognitive, motivational, emotional dispositions of individual students; their  learning processes and development; student heterogeneity and adaptive teaching strategies)

 assessment (diagnosis principles and evaluation procedures)

For a detailed discussion and definition of general pedagogical knowledge, see Guerriero, S. (Ed.) (2017). Pedagogical Knowledge and the Changing Nature of the Teaching Profession. Paris: OECD Publishing. Link to Research

Also see OECD Report

OECD- Understanding teachers’ pedagogical knowledge report on an international pilot study

Kristina Sonmark, Nóra Révai, Francesca Gottschalk, Karolina Deligiannidi, Tracey Burns 11 Oct 2017




Looking Ahead- HE and 2018

Vice Chancellors remuneration has shed light on the quality of leadership, governance, and lax regulation in HE .The sector hasn’t reacted intelligently to the changing dynamic between producer and consumer. Too little transparency and accountability have been in evidence. The Office for Students, which is now  in place,  will be firing on all cylinders from April and Professor Barber has made it clear that he wants to see changes over pay, accountability and Freedom of Speech, with more to come  . OfS  aims  to  ensure that the sector is more consumer focused. How the sector is funded, and student debt, will very much remain on the agenda,  Lord Adonis will see to that. The combination of increased concerns over the value of degrees, with more information available for students on  employment destinations, will pressure universities to  improve their offers and focus more  on the  quality both of  their teaching and pastoral support.

Research has always trumped teaching in the sector .The TEF, with its clunky metrics, is work in progress, but expect some significant   rebalancing in favour of teaching.   Universities can learn more from schools about teaching and pastoral support.  So expect more co-operation between HE and secondary sectors and not just in outreach.

Technological breakthroughs in AI , robotics, the internet of things, autonomous vehicles, 3D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage and quantum computing,  will   offer immense scope for new courses, research  and  innovative  partnerships between institutions and business. So watch this space. Though some claims about AI may be overblown, it really will change the way we do things, not least in education, and, longer term, impact significantly on the employment market.

Three year degrees haven’t  had there day, but expect increased disruption in the market,  and more  students choosing non-traditional routes into employment.  More accelerated degrees will be developed  , and  possibly even four year degrees in niche areas. The Higher and Degree Apprenticeships offers will gradually improve in quality and scope , with more student choice, and better matches with employers demands but  expect incremental change here, rather than  a stampede. Delivery lags behind the up beat narrative.

As demand for education outstrips supply, globally, internationalisation of education and transnational education will grow. Structures and means of delivery are changing. Abroad, look at what Michael Crow is doing at the University of Arizona- re-engineering courses , technological delivery  platforms and pedagogy, greater use of AI,  matching excellence and improved  access in the same institution , something of a holy grail in the sector. As for Brexit,   it will have limited impact both on staff and research this  year. And , on a positive note,  there is a big incentive for universities to be more  outward looking,  to form partnerships and to co-operate with institutions  abroad  whether its in research, teaching or innovation or,  indeed, in investigating the setting up of satellite campuses.     And  lets try to be nicer to international students. We need them. In this respect it will be worth watching the passage of the Immigration Bill. Although the sector remains highly competitive internationally it is perhaps significant that students in both China and India are increasingly making Australia their second choice after the USA, and not the UK. We have few areas where we have a comparative advantage in international markets but education is one.  But we have to work harder just to maintain our competitive position,  a message that has not got through to some in government and the sector

Critical Thinking-Can it be taught?

Not without subject knowledge 

An OECD report (see link below) says that one good example of a compound skill that relies heavily on both cognitive and personality components is critical thinking. It represents an ability to reflect on information interpret it in a new context and find solutions to novel problems based on existing knowledge. It encompasses cognitive capacities to use the rules of logic and cost benefit analysis, think strategically, and apply rules to new situations to solve problems. However, critical thinking also incorporates aspects of what it labels the Big Five dimension of openness to experience, such as independence  (autonomy) and unconventionality, which represent the driving factors behind the use of cognitive skills for purposes of critical inquiry.’

It continues ‘There is a consensus that critical thinking is an increasingly important skill that should be cultivated in formal education. The ability to act independently and reflect critically upon a given reality is especially important in the fast-changing environment we live in. The role of educational systems is thus increasingly seen as one helping children become lifelong learners, individuals who are autonomous and adaptable, able to critically reflect and understand the evolving reality. A critical stance is also seen as an increasingly relevant skill in a world with more and more misinformation, the unexamined acceptance of which can lead to dangerous consequences for both society and individuals.’

Critical thinking is reckoned by some to include the component skills of analysing arguments, making inferences using inductive or deductive reasoning, judging or evaluating, and making decisions or solving problems.

So critical thinking is good. But,  to think critically you need a sound knowledge base. The more we know,  the more we can think, and think critically. And the more we know, the more we can reflect on what we know and therefore make the connections and linkages that are a prerequisite for critical thinking.

Uncritical thinking, on the other hand , looks a bit  like rote learning , and  simple regurgitation of facts. This is the start of an on -going debate about whether critical thinking can be taught as a standalone subject or not. Is critical thinking a generic skill to be taught? The short answer is that you need sufficient knowledge of a particular domain before you can think critically about it, so it is important that you build your knowledge across the curriculum and in specific domains before you can think critically. You should be encouraged to think critically in every subject you are studying. Your critical thinking is only as good as the mastery of your subject.

The  American education historian Diane Ravitch argued that “we have ignored what matters most. We have neglected to teach them (ie students)  that one cannot think critically without quite a lot of knowledge to think about. Thinking critically involves comparing and contrasting and synthesizing what one has learned. And a great deal of knowledge is necessary before one can begin to reflect on its meaning and look for alternative explanations.”

According to Daniel Willingham, decades of cognitive research suggest that  critical thinking  can’t really be taught. The problem is that people who have sought to teach critical thinking have assumed that is a skill, like riding a bike. Similar to other skills, once you learn it, you can apply it to any situation. Unfortunately, thinking is not that sort of skill he says . The processes of thinking are intertwined with the content of thought ( in other words,  domain knowledge). This helps to explain why students are able to think critically in one subject area, but not in another. The more domain knowledge they have, the more critically they will be able to think about that particular topic or idea. Critical thinking is dependent and contextual. It is not as transferable as we have been led to believe, he claims.

As Willingham says, ‘Critical thinking is not a set of skills that can be deployed at any time, in any context. It is a type of thought that even 3-year-olds can engage in – and even trained scientists can fail in.’

But research from Pearson, says that while background knowledge is absolutely necessary  it is not a sufficient condition for enabling critical thought within a given subject.  It found in its literature review that  ‘Critical thinking involves both cognitive skills and dispositions. These dispositions, which can be seen as attitudes or habits of mind, include open and fair-mindedness, inquisitiveness, flexibility, a propensity to seek reason, a desire to be well informed, and a respect for and willingness to entertain diverse viewpoints.’ So, there are both general- and domain-specific aspects of critical thinking. Critical thinking is more than recalling learned information.  Based on this, Pearson says that  critical thinking assessments should ‘use ill-structured problems that require students to go beyond recalling or restating learned information and also require students to manipulate the information in new or novel contexts.’  It concludes that in theory all people can be taught to think critically. Instructors are urged to provide explicit instruction in critical thinking, to teach how to transfer to new contexts.’ So this seems to reinforce the OECD view that critical thinking requires ‘both cognitive and personality components’  and yes teachers can help (see above)

Critical Thinking: A Literature Review- Research Report, Pearson 2011

Link to Report

OECD Report

Memorisation and Learning- Paul A Kirschner at SSATs conference

Memory and Learning

Don’t confuse access to information with knowledge

William Faulkner said in ‘Light in August’ that “ memory believes before knowing remembers”. In recent years cognitive psychologists have established that the mechanics of memory have a big impact on learning.   Professor Paul Kirschner, in a key note presentation  at  last weeks well attended   SSAT Annual conference,  described the difference between short term,  or working memory, and long term memory(LTM) and its impact on learning .

Short Term and Long Term Memory

The long-term memory can be defined as a huge,   virtually limitless repository of vocabulary, concepts and procedures.  Human intellect comes from this stored knowledge and not from long, complex chains of reasoning in working memory.  Everything we see, hear or think about, it seems,   is dependent upon our long term memory.

The human working  short term memory, on the other hand, is much more limited. It is the ‘space’ in which we think and process information immediately. The relationship between short term and long term memory and the cognitive processes that support learning are all  vital to learning. Indeed, long term memory is seen as the single dominant structure of human cognition.  Learning is defined as a change in long-term memory. And the human cognitive architecture is formed of both long-term and short-term memory “where the long-term incorporates a massive knowledge base that is central to all of our cognitively based activities”

Working memory can only hold, for a short time, a few items so   7+/- 2 items for less than a minute. When working memory fills its processing capacities,  it slows down. Kirschner demonstrated this with an exercise in memorisation in which the audience participated, memorising basic sequences of related numbers and letters. The exercise starkly demonstrated the constraints of short term memory.

When students are working on a task – be it reading, writing, solving a maths problem or throwing a ball – they are mainly relying on the representations of these experiences in their long-term memories. When we solve a new problem, we are not really working it out. We are remembering it. This is because the space in the working-memory is so small. And, It is easy to overload this short term memory. Its constrained ,unlike long term memory, which is virtually limitless.

The encouraging thing though is that  long-term memories  can be brought back to mind when they are needed/  The  point about this is  that if nothing has been changed in long-term memory, then nothing has been learned. If you know your times-tables, for instance, this knowledge can be employed to help in the solving of more complex problems without placing any extra stress on working memory. Therefore, the more developed our mental schemas – the vast repositories of concepts and procedures in our long-term memory – the easier it is to learn new information.

So what? How does this impact on what teachers do ? Well, teachers want their students to retain what they are being taught and apply it later on. They get frustrated that their students forget vital information so quickly.   So, teachers should ease the load on their students’ short term, working memories. Too much information leads to cognitive over-load.  So how do you get information to embed in your long term memory? In short,   the more students practice something, the more likely it will be that this stays in the  long term memory.  Broadly its called the Test Effect. Teachers   need to free  up short term memory  to ensure that more information gets s stored in long term memory.


So, teacher instruction must consider how this information is stored and organised in LTM so that it is  then accessible when and where it is needed. This is where schema theory comes in.  Knowledge is stored in LTM in schemata. Schemata is about categorising  information elements according to how they will be used , A schema can hold a huge amount of information, yet is processed as a single unit in working memory. Schemata can integrate information elements and production rules and become automated, thus requiring less storage and controlled processing. Skilled performance consists of building increasing numbers of increasingly complex schemas by combining elements consisting of lower level schemas into higher level schemas. . In summary, schema construction aids the storage and organisation of information in long-term memory and reduces working memory load so avoiding cognitive over-load. (If you’ve missed it , this is the new big idea in cognitive psychology.)

Multi- Tasking and Distractions

Well, at least we can  all multi-task  (especially women!). Well actually we can’t.  Or at least not  at all well.  Because our short term memory is so constrained, we are not good at multi- tasking, although we may think we are.  What we actually do is shift from one task to another. And we are particularly bad  at functioning in basic tasks if  we are in any way distracted while carrying out that task. Those who claim to  to multitask at scale    show an enormous range of  cognitive deficits. They’re basically terrible at all sorts of cognitive tasks, including multitasking.

If ,for example, a car driver is  distracted by using his/her  mobile phone ,even hands free, Kirschner revealed an experiment that showed  drivers reaction times  and the distance it takes to stop a  car,   is  badly affected by mobile phone use.  (the data was pretty  shocking) Using a mobile phone was considerably worse, as it happens, than if  someone is impaired by alcohol.

Kirschner made it clear that the use of computers and mobiles during his presentation were distractions and should be switched off.  Much better to use pencil and notepad. Some teachers in the audience were inevitably caught out .The broader lesson for teachers though  is to reduce distractions,  and that includes technology,  for learners to a minimum because we cannot multi-task and our short term memory has significant constraints and is prone to overload.


The Testing Effect

The testing effect was referenced as means of embedding information and knowledge in long term memory (LTM). It is the finding that long-term memory is increased when some of the learning period is devoted to retrieving the to-be-remembered information through testing with proper feedback. The effect is also sometimes referred to as retrieval practice, practice testing, or test-enhanced learning. Testing has a powerful positive effect on future retention. If students are tested on material and successfully recall or recognize it, they will remember it better in future than if they had not been tested. . Frequent testing leads students to space their study efforts, permits them and their instructors to assess their knowledge on an ongoing basis, and—most important —serves as a powerful mnemonic aid for future retention.

Actually, the limitations of working memory mean that we have to have a store of facts in long-term memory, in order to be able to think. Not only that, but in order to use reference tools like Google and Wikipedia effectively, you need a great deal of knowledge to begin with stored in your long term memory .Those who think that you simply need access to the internet now and don’t need to learn and store facts are simply wrong. They clearly confuse information with knowledge, not uncommon among Edutechies.  Who can disagree with that?   Making knowledge stick, so you can apply it later on  matters to us all .Because that is what learning is really about. Memorisation and applying knowledge over time , is learning. And the more we know, the more we can think.

Memorisation and Rote Learning

Rote memorization actually encourages surface learning, rather than anything deeper   “Cognitively passive” study methods, are based on repetition and rehearsal, i.e., rote memorization.  While these techniques can make it easier (and faster) to recall information within a narrow window of time, when it comes to application, analysis, and other higher-order types of knowledge, they may be worse than useless because they consume valuable time that could/should be spent on deep learning approaches

There are a list of techniques that can help LTM which Paul Kirschner   briefly referenced in his presentation .There are quite a few .But here are just some:

Retrieval practice

Self-quiz frequently by recalling information from your memory. Every time you access a memory, you strengthen it. So, not only does self-quizzing help you identify your areas of weakness, it also helps you retain the information for later recall by strengthening the neural connections.

Elaborative rehearsal

Link new information to things you already know. Access to memories is greatly improved when the information being learned is meaningful. To aid in recall, study methods should involve deliberate creation of logical, intuitive, and even fanciful associations with existing knowledge. Make sense of new information and develop an organizational scheme/framework; information you understand rarely needs to be “memorized.”

 Generation effect

Retention and recall are improved when you actively participate in the creation of your own knowledge.  So, Create your own summaries, study guides, tables, flow charts, diagrams, etc.

Dual coding

Create both a visual and a verbal memory for the same information.

 Associate words with pictures

o Use your own words to describe a picture/figure/diagram

o Translate a written passage into a drawing or diagram

Distributed effort

Spread studying out over several days, rather than cramming. Say you’re going to spend 10 hours studying a particular topic, rather than spending one marathon 10-hour session, it is far more effective to spend that time as 10 one-hour sessions, or 5 2-hour sessions, or even 2 5-hour sessions, spread out over two or more days. This is why it is so very important to review everyday. Obviously, you cannot review everything everyday, but make sure you frequently review the things that are most challenging to you.

For more information on Paul A. Kirschners thinking and research

Urban Myths

Is Identity Politics fomenting Intolerance ?

Mark Lilla, Professor of humanities at Columbia University, New York, in his new book is “The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics” says that Identity politics on the left was at first about large classes of people – African Americans, women, gays – seeking to redress major historical wrongs by mobilising and then working through our political institutions to secure their rights. But by  the 1980s, it had ” given way to a pseudo-politics of self-regard and increasingly narrow, exclusionary self-definition that is now cultivated in our colleges and universities.” Identity politics generally refers to the idea that we are all members of a particular distinctive  group or groups with whom we identify  sharing common interests and values and politics is about representing and protecting these groups perceived  interests.

Professor Lilla refers to  ‘identity liberalism’, in other words a  focus on racial, gender and sexual identity, rather than on the  politics of the common good.

He  says that by undermining the universal democratic “we” on which solidarity can be built, duty instilled and action inspired, it is unmaking rather than making citizens. In the end, this approach just strengthens all the atomising forces that dominate our age.’

The universities of our time, he claims , instead cultivate students so obsessed with their personal or group  identities that they have  precious left   to register  any interest in, or engagement with ,  people and matters that don’t touch on their chosen  identity

The main result has been to turn young people back on to themselves, rather than turning them outward towards the wider world they share with others. It has left them unprepared to think about the common good in non-identity terms and what must be done practically to secure it – especially the hard and unglamorous task of persuading people very different from themselves to join a common effort.

Clare Foges of the Times picked up on a similar theme in the paper this week . Again she sees it through the lens of left wing politics.  She said there is now a tendency to put people in boxes, to see the minority status first  then the individual second, rather  than  the other way round . There is now  an obsession, she says  with identity and difference which she claims is central to  Labours  strategy . Lost in all this though  is a sense of the common good, what is good for the community and country.

It is not exclusively of the left though, it seems to me. .  Pigeon holing people and defining   them as part of a group is common practice across the political and social spectrums. Social media aids  this process,  at  scale . If you define yourself as part of a group, you interact with  other members of that group and this helps reinforce your identity,  your views and values within  that group. In this echo chamber there is a tendency not to look outwards and to engage with others but to look inwards for support and reinforcement.  This in turn can breed intolerance and shut off  interaction debate and discussion. In the worse cases  people outside your group are seen  as a  threat which needs to be  addressed –and attacked or ostracised.   This  in turn begets trigger warnings, safe spaces and no- platforming. .  Wrapped around this   is the myth   that  these groups are homogeneous  , that they  share distinctive ,  common views and values. So you end up with vapid bogus  generalizations-  People of Colour think that … transgender people think this  .. Gay people think that..   Even  men and women are pigeon holed in this way.

Identity politics though leads to an atomised society .It is the individual group that is more important than the broader community.Sensitivity to the feelings of that group and individuals who mirror the views of the group, become paramount.  And if you are not part of that group   and you have not  lived  their experience and were not born into  it,   then you cant  know how they  feel.   So,   your views are irrelevant and  carry no weight. This is  an exclusive rather than inclusive form of  politics and engagement.  More than that, outsiders   are not entitled to express their  views . In this way intolerance is fomented and debate  shut down . And ,the rich  irony, is that if you express sympathy for a group ,with which you are not identified,  you can now  be accused of ‘appropriation’.   One  strongly suspects that this is one of the reasons why freedom of speech and expression has become such a fraught issue. Identity politics can shut down openness and transparent engagement. Too often the apostles of tolerance  ,who see themselves as liberals and champions of minorities rights   are, it turns out,   among the most intolerant.

The New Statesman wonders whether the left on the back of identity politics   has become too diverse. It opined recently ‘ The left must be more than a rainbow coalition of disaffected groups or identity interests. An obsession with self-affirmation can weaken solidarity and fellow feeling. It can lead liberals to tolerate illiberal behaviour in the name of “multiculturalism”. It can lead to the weakening of historic bonds – of class, of institutional loyalties.’

This all seems true.  Politics does seem to be more atomised, more exclusive and less focused now on shared values and action. Tolerance of others views is in short supply.If you really want diversity, you have to accept not just the views you like, but the ones you don’t.  The quality  of the public discourse is suffering .  Knowing this is one thing. Knowing what to do about  it  another. But pushing back on attempts to curb freedom of expression and speech seems  a good starting point  . So too  is teaching  young people  more about   liberal values, of how to engage responsibly  in informed debate ,to pursue truth,  to fact check,   to be tolerant of others views and more inclusive in their engagement with others  on political issues ,these  all   seem  to be  good starting  points.



The transition from primary to secondary school is known to be worrying for many pupils. They have to adapt to a more challenging school setting with different academic structures and expectations. They have to interact with new teachers and peers leaving behind what is known, secure  and routine . A significant minority of pupils experience a range of difficulties in adjusting to secondary school ,evidenced by a drop in performance, unreliable attendance, behaviour problems and increased anxiety.

But its often forgotten that the  social and academic challenges for pupils are just as real in the transition from secondary school to college and Higher Education. Young people are moving from one familiar learning environment to another very different one, requiring a different set of skills.  For example: self-belief, self-reflection, resilience,  critical thinking, independent learning  and,  crucially, management of expectations.

Many, particularly from the most disadvantaged cohort, are ill prepared for it.

A recent Roundtable this month,  hosted by Sir Anthony Seldon, Vice Chancellor of University of Buckingham , chaired  by Mary Curnock Cook,  looked  at the issues affecting students   in this transition. Sir Anthony  said that in his over 20 years of running secondary schools it had become very clear to him that there was a signal lack of connectivity and understanding between the secondary and Higher Education sectors. Schools don’t think that what happens in Universities has much to do with them, and vice versa.  However, nothing could be further from the truth.  Research for his booklet for the Social Market Foundation ’Solving the Conundrum: Teaching and learning at British universities’ revealed very low levels of knowledge and interest from HEIs in what is actually happening in schools. Dr Harriet Jones, of UEA,  has developed a particular interest in students transition from sixth forms/colleges to Universities, developing  Pre-University courses for students  which are used in over 300 schools to help prepare  students  for this transition.

Dr Jones said there was an obvious   chronic mismatch between what students expected from university study and what they actually experienced.  Surveys have shown that students, before they go to university, really don’t think  much about the academic challenges and transition that they face and what skills they may require to cope with their course work at university – instead, they think almost entirely about the social transition.  You have to understand young people’s perceptions and expectations to have a deeper understanding of the nature of the challenges they face in transition.  For example, a survey referenced by Dr Jones ,  found that 80% of those young people surveyed thought that all their university work would get personal feedback from a tutor and a similar percentage thought that a tutor would look at the first draft of their work.  So, differing expectations are a consistent and widespread problem.  Other Surveys, including the NSS, make it abundantly clear that young people believe that Universities are not delivering what they expected they would deliver.  This disjunction between their expectations and what they actually experience, needs to be addressed pro-actively.  A better and deeper shared understanding between students and universities has to be developed. .  They need to be informed – ie, this is what will happen in your first year and this is how you can  prepare for it. . Sixth formers are not being told what university is like and how it differs from the school learning environment.  In schools they are programmed to be taught by teachers to pass the test and exams.  The system is assessment driven.  That is what they are used to and prepared for.  At University it’s a  different learning environment. More of a partnership model where individuals need  agency and self-efficacy,   working with their tutors to develop as learners, needing  more  self-motivation  and initiative  and without the disciplined structure afforded by a school environment.

So, if there is a different approach to teaching and learning why don’t we better prepare young people for it?  And who should take responsibility? The answer is probably both schools and universities.

There are worries that a lack of funding in schools, colleges and sixth forms  is serving to narrow the curriculum offer,  further making it  even less likely that pupils will have the skills they need when they arrive in higher education. So there is surely scope  for universities to  step up to the plate on this and perhaps dedicate  some of their outreach funds to address this challenge.

Through Pre-University study courses and support in the first year at University there are a range of interventions that can help. But we first have to acknowledge that a problem exists. The Brilliant Club  has been doing some interesting work in this area. In seeking  to increase the number of pupils from under-represented backgrounds (those on Pupil Premium etc) progressing to highly-selective universities , it mobilises the PhD community to share its academic expertise with state schools through its Scholars Programme and Researchers in Schools,  running academic enrichment programmes. Students do apparently get a real sense of what will be required of them from people who have been through the process who act as mentors.

Dr Jones suggested that good sixth form preparation for HE, might include, for example

  • 3 A Levels
  • An Extended Project Qualification (EPQ)
  • Core Maths
  • Pre-University skills course


Much  more clearly needs to be done . To be fair some universities are already on  the case, but  the time has come for a more structured systematic  and coherent approach.  It  needs more  leadership from  the sector,   resources and  political backing,   to gain real momentum .

The Gatsby Benchmarks and the Careers Strategy

The Government is under increasing pressure to publish its long awaited  careers strategy. It has promised to release the  strategy ’ this autumn’. The ‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’  is upon us.The clock ticking.  Pressure is also mounting for it to have a more inclusive approach to the so-called Gatsby benchmarks ,produced by Sir John Holman which define the key concurrent  activities required to deliver high quality Careers Guidance. Ministers and the Careers and Enterprise Company consistently champion just two of the eight benchmarks, covering work experience and engagement with employers,   largely to the exclusion of the other six . It is widely accepted that the benchmarks are interdependent and mutually supportive, so that if just some activities take place, then the impact on outcomes will be diminished. The current narrative around careers guidance, particularly articulated   by Ministers, focuses almost entirely on the activities of the Careers and Enterprise company, and largely ignores what is happening through the National Careers Service and through other professional careers guidance  providers,  partnerships and hubs where there are many examples of outstanding practice often  confirmed  by Ofsted inspections. We should be acknowledging and   building on this best practice

Recently, the Minister Robert Goodwill in response to a PQ from Gordon Marsden, Labours Skills and HE spokesman said’  ‘The careers strategy will include proposals to improve the quality and coverage of careers advice in schools. These proposals will be informed by evidence regarding what works. The Gatsby benchmarks are based on the best national and international research and define excellence in careers provision. A two year pilot of the Gatsby benchmarks in the North East has demonstrated that significant improvements can be made.’ These improvements relied on an inclusive approach to the Benchmarks.

As the Minister stated Schools and colleges within the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (North East LEP) were selected in 2015 to pilot a new national careers guidance framework. This was  designed to encourage the next generation of young people to make fully informed decisions and to begin to equip them with the skills employers need. The pilot involved two years of intensive careers activity with schools, colleges and local businesses and is  including   four years of data collection, gathered and analysed by an independent evaluator, who will report on the impact of the national pilot in terms of student outcomes and progression into higher education, apprenticeships or employment. Ryan Gibson, National Facilitator for the Good Career Guidance Benchmarks Pilot at the NE LEP, said in June this year :

“The programme has been transformational in terms of improving students’ access to careers education and helping them develop the skills employers need. The initiatives the North East LEP has developed as part of the Career Guidance Benchmarks pilot have improved collaboration between the business community and the education sector, as well as provide teaching staff with workplace training and personal development opportunities to better equip them with the knowledge and skills to provide effective careers advice to students.”

Its pretty obvious that the government needs to focus on what works on the ground, learn from it , build on it and that the  resources that are available  should be directed to this end. At the moment this just isnt happening, to the frustration  of professional  guidance practitioners and to the cost of  people, including  many of our youngest and  most disadvantaged students  , seeking to make informed  career choices.Hopefully,  the Ministers reply , referencing the benchmarks  and evidence of what works represents  a nuanced  shift in policy. But dont hold your breath!

Eight Gatsby Benchmarks

A stable careers programme

Learning from career and labour market information

Addressing the needs of each pupil

Linking curriculum learning to careers

Encounters with employers and employees

Experiences of workplaces

Encounters with further and higher education

Personal guidance



See also  John Yarhams article in FE News October 2017

FE News