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Focusing on process rather than disipline: a path for the future?

Professor Michael Lewis, visiting professor at the Lord Ashcroft International Business School at Anglia Ruskin University outlines a new approach to learning that has been implemented in Riverston, of which he has been CEO for 20years. He speculates how such an approach, used in this case with mixed ability classes including children with special educational needs, might equally work in business schools facing challenges of multicultural and mixed ability teaching.

For some years organisations representing employers such as the CBI and IoD have lamented the abilities of school leavers, and increasingly graduates, who are unable to deal with the basics of working life – from turning up on time – to a lack of literacy and numeracy understanding – to poor communication and limited problem solving skills.

Riverston is a fully accredited co-educational independent day school based in south east London, for 250 children from 1yr to 16yrs. Unlike many other independent schools, it is has developed a unique method that enables it to accept students with special educational needs. Riverston Plus’ teaching and learning methods are unique as it enables students with significant learning issues to learn at their own pace within an inclusive mainstream setting while challenging them to progress and acquire the necessary skills and competencies in a very supportive environment to lead successful lives and careers.  With this method, Riverston is able to welcome students from all over the world. Its main differentiation is that the mode of learning and its evaluation are integrative and applied through problem-solving. Given the fact that most business schools have students coming with a range of abilities, and different cultural and linguistic backgrounds, such an approach could be an ideal training for developing successful entrepreneurs. I fear too much emphasis and time in business schools is given to simply gaining the qualification without the knowledge necessary to contribute positively to a future employer.

The approach

The Riverston Plus method is designed to develop a set of core learning outcomes that are recognized as essential to succeed in life and a professional career. The emphasis is put on teaching students to find and study information and learn to meet these goals thus also equipping them with the ability to learn how to learn.

Substantial support is given in key areas such as language and numeracy skills that underpin the whole learning experience. Students’ progress towards ‘graduation’ is evaluated against core learning outcomes as defined in each child’s individual education plans. Individually tailored courses, specific skills and competencies learned along the way are designed to support the development of these core skills.

Therefore in contrast with traditional education methods that evaluate course by course with the idea (and hope!) that students acquire core skills simply by completing the sum of courses required to graduate, Riverston Plus actually uses evaluation of the core skills as the ultimate objective to ‘graduate’ and uses courses to support the student’s learning journey to achieve these objectives.

Three principles and their application

The three principles which underpin each child’s special curriculum are those of intellectual and practical skills, and the issues of personal and social responsibility achieved through integrative and applied learning.

Thus the core curriculum consists of sets of skills, competences and outcomes which are gained through intellectual study, collaboration, and problem-solving.

Intellectual and practical skills

These are gained through study in the sciences and mathematics, social sciences, humanities, histories, languages, and the arts and are focused by engagement with big questions, both contemporary and enduring. Skills here are those of:

  • Inquiry and analysis
  • Critical and creative thinking
  • Written and oral communication
  • Quantitative literacy
  • Information literacy

Personal and social responsibility

The approach here is gained through teamwork and problem solving which are practised extensively, across and throughout the curriculum, in the context of progressively more challenging problems, projects, and standards for performance.

The skills gained here are those of:

  • Civic knowledge and engagement—local and global
  • Intercultural knowledge and competence
  • Ethical reasoning and action
  • Foundations and skills for lifelong learning

Integrative and applied learning

The sum of both of these are finally anchored through active involvement with diverse communities and real-world challenges which synthesises learning across general and specialised studies. This is demonstrated through the application of knowledge, skills, and responsibilities to new settings and complex problems.

How does it work?

Riverston Plus’ method relies on customised learning plans, individual tutoring and state of the art content delivered by excellent teaching. The model puts the emphasis on learning to learn, work ethos and broadening the mind. Student’s previous academic records are carefully assessed, and the information gathered is used to develop, with the active participation of the student their individualised education plan. This study plan sets out specific learning objectives within a realistic time frame with regular comprehensive evaluation points along the way.

While there is a set curriculum, Riverston School recognises that one size does not fit all and that education is a profoundly individual journey. Therefore the individual study plan requires students to complete a set of courses, the order of which is specifically designed to help the learner successfully develop the skills and competencies needed to become successful in their adult life.

The Riverston Plus method is unique in so far as it specifically separates course delivery (i.e. the teacher teaching a specific topic) from tutoring (i.e. the person in charge of helping the student achieve their long term learning objectives). Courses are offered mostly in a structured format (increasingly on-line), allowing highly qualified teachers to teach their subject. Thus Riverston Plus offers much higher content than other independent schools with a learning support department who are too often restricted by league table pressure, a selective ethos and philosophy, and a lack of special educational resources on campus.

Tutoring is individual and consists of daily meetings. It is offered by experienced educators who follow a small number of students.

In addition to courses that are taken within Riverston Plus (whether online or face to face) tutors also organise a variety of supporting activities that are directly related to each student’s intellectual enrichment and professional development. These activities are mandatory and students cannot successfully ‘graduate’ without following this part of Riverston’s program. Out of term time special day and residential holiday clubs provide uninterrupted course delivery – albeit in a more relaxed and informal environment.

I think such a method could provide an ideal blueprint for business schools, where core skills are probably more important than learning ‘knowledge’ about systems and procedures that are usually dated quite quickly. As a society we live in a fast-moving, fast-changing world, and my experience as a social/educational entrepreneur shows me that a successful business student will be one who knows how to ‘learn how to learn’ rather than one who has simply learnt a pre-scripted approach. Flexibility and adaptability, founded on critical thinking, technical skills and imagination and the ability to implement, is I suggest far more important than knowing a case study of how someone else achieved a certain goal – the operating conditions can move swiftly from culture to culture, from moment to moment, and from sector to sector.

New business models are being created daily, and these are underpinned above all by good relationship and team-building skills – whilst there is often an articulated goal which has brought different people together, the project tends to change and emerge as the team begins working. This is the characteristic of an open system – ready to flex with different feedback as it enters the system. Of course, the practicality and cost of implementing such approaches in business schools may be prohibitive – but if we are to maintain the undoubted strengths of the British educational system in a sustainable fashion, then I believe that a process-based curriculum and method as outlined above, could furnish both UK and international students with the necessary networking and problem-solving skills that will enable them to deal successfully with a transitioning world.

Michael Lewis

E: michael_lewis52@btinternet.com

Riverston School: www.riverstonschool.co.uk

Written by:
Michael Lewis