In recent years I have come really to appreciate the value of critical reflection that is embedded in the curriculum in British schools. In fact, it is so embedded that it is often taken for granted, as is its cousin, scepticism, and – perhaps as a result, and certainly rather ironically – critical reflection and scepticism are themselves now less frequently reflected upon as concepts. Critical reflection and scepticism have, in fact, acquired a bad name – they are seen as negatives rather than as neutral, helpful qualities, and this is rather unfortunate. Criticism is perceived as negative, and is consequently demotivating – after all, human nature dictates that if we are always being told that what we do is wrong or inadequate, then we will struggle to respond positively and with enthusiasm, innovation and creativity.
Fundamentally, teachers and schools want to engage in continual improvement. Young people do not stand still; society does not stand still; schools do not stand still. It is hardwired into the human spirit to want to improve, and in teachers particularly so – teachers and school leaders are in their profession because they want to do something that matters, and to make a difference. Change around them is often so fast that it can be challenging for schools to move at speed, however; moreover, teachers are only human too – too much criticism (with its social and culturally acquired hue of negativity) can be hard to take.
So when Sir Michael Wilshaw, the Chief Inspector of Schools, is quoted in today’s newspapers as saying that standards in secondary schools are failing to rise – figures which are disputed by the government, in any case – then it is unsurprising that teachers may perceive this as another knock. This is precisely what inspection should not do, and it is counter-productive. No-one disputes that schools should be held to account and encouraged to improve (after all, we invest hugely in schools in our education-focused society); what we need to evolve, however, are the words and the processes around inspection which empower, enliven and enable continuous and positive change.
If we could return to the concept of critical reflection as positive and valuable, this would be a great start … in the meantime, however, perhaps less haranguing and navel-gazing might set us on the right path. British education, quite rightly, has an excellent reputation around the world; perhaps we have just taken some of its core components just that little bit too far.