Review by Becky Allen

9 Jul 2017, 5:00

World Class: Tackling the ten biggest challenges facing schools today

What should we teach? How can school progress be measured? What does outstanding leadership look like? These are deep, almost impossibly complex questions that have challenged educationists through the generations.

This book, describing itself as a “powerful manifesto for change”, seeks to contribute to the debate with five 1,000-word essays on each of the ten biggest challenges they say face schools today.

I was excited to read it because the questions that its editors have posed to world-class educationists are genuinely interesting. Dylan Wiliam, John Hattie, Doug Lemov and Robert A Bjork, all in one book. Who could resist?

But just a few pages in I could see that the format wouldn’t work, at least for me. One thousand words is enough for someone to make a point, but on such complex issues as “How can we improve professional standards?”, it is never enough to explain the reasoning behind the point and provide evidence that supports the perspective.

The book is best thought of as a series of opinion pieces

Because of this, the book is best thought of as a series of opinion pieces. In fact, as I read I was reminded of Caitlin Moran’s recent opinion piece in The Times, “Why I should run our schools”, that so upset the edu-twitterati. They claimed that if she knew anything about the evidence she would not propose the “semi-feral library-based self-education” that she did. Take an expert, give them 1,000 words to answer a complex question, and it is hard to feel convinced they have the answers to fixing the education system any more than Moran does.

I liked the essays where I knew the contributor’s work well enough to believe the arguments they made. It is always a pleasure and comforting reassurance of my own world-view to read the ideas of Rob Coe, Christine Counsell, Tom Bennett, Steve Biddulph and Tim Oates. For the essayists who made statements that I disagreed with, the format simply did not give them the space to have any possibility of convincing me to review my prior position on the topic.

World Class is the panel session of the education literature world. Conference panel sessions are great for the panellists because they can participate with little preparation, drawing on past materials to throw together their three-minute blurb.

And yet, unlike a panel session at a conference, in this book there is no question and answer section, no means for the audience to unpick the arguments of a panellist, no space for one panellist to challenge another’s perspective. So when Carol Dweck asks “Who will be better prepared for the unknown jobs of the future?”, other contributors cannot respectfully suggest that most jobs of the future will be the same as those of the present.

Views in the book conflict, with no possibility of resolution.

Some of the overarching questions undoubtedly work better than others. The chapter on “How can teachers become specialists?” is interesting, as is “How can we improve behaviour in the classroom?” Others worked less well for me, perhaps because the interpretations of the question itself (eg, “How independent should schools be?”) were too broad and so the essays spoke to completely different sub-questions.

In the end, I liked the essays that didn’t try to answer the question they were set. John Hattie and Doug Lemov wrote short stories about an aspect of their life or work. They weren’t trying to make an overarching argument, without the word count for the necessary foundations. They just told the reader about something interesting. And I enjoyed reading that.

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