Horses for courses

I was recently reading about a highly qualified Oxbridge scientist who was enjoying, and by all accounts succeeding in her first year as a teacher in a secondary school under the ‘Teach First‘ scheme that encourages graduates to spend at least the first two years of their career teaching in ‘difficult’ secondary schools.

Very soon, I thought, and sooner than she probably realises, she will have to make the biggest decision of her life – whether to leave teaching at the end of the two years, or to become a teacher for the rest of her working life. In later years we of course would recognise her as someone with excellent communication and personnel skills, highly organised, methodical, hard-working and socially-minded with excellent communication and personnel skills – ideal for employment in any industry. But sadly industry doesn’t work that way, and before long will simply see her as someone with no commercial experience or drive, and with scientific knowledge and experience that is now out of date. And, before she knows it, she will also have taken on to that mysterious ‘aura’ that seems to mark a teacher out in a crowd –  it’s just something about the way they speak, look and behave.

Meanwhile with our frequent references to ivory towers, regular readers might imagine that All Change Please! has the impression that all university courses are purely academic and, as such, of little practical value. Nothing of course could be further from the truth, with many of the so-called ‘soft subjects’ successfully preparing students for the rigour of life and work in the real world. And indeed, it is the traditional courses in history, english literature, pure mathematics, etc that are declining in numbers and closing down. So why do we continue to have a primary and secondary curriculum that continues to promote these out-moded academic disciplines, particularly at GCSE and A level? Why aren’t we introducing and giving much greater emphasis to the subjects school-children are more likely to go on and study?

Maybe it’s partly because most of our teachers are those who have themselves been academically successful in school, have gone on to study a traditional academic subject at university, and then have discovered they can’t get a job in anything other than teaching a traditionally academic subject in a secondary school? And at the same time mid-career industrialists don’t see that the technical, project-based collaborative skills and expertise they have acquired and could pass on will be valued in a school.

Somehow ‘once a teacher, always a teacher’ is a mind-set and situation we urgently need to change.

A horse is a horse, of course…

Meanwhile, after a photo-finish and a win by a short head, the novice, dark-horse Mr Ed appears to have won the race.

The more senior readers amongst us will of course recall that the famous Mr Ed is of course a talking horse who featured in a US TV series in the mid 1960s…

Little thinks or Big thinks?*

I’ve been doing some deep thinking recently, about…’the art of deep thought’. Not this time the computer in the HHGTTG, but the phrase being presently used by academics and politicians without, as usual, any clear explanation as to what they really mean. For example: (Nice Mr Gove) said he ” wanted to switch emphasis back to examinations taken at the end of two years of study in order to revive the art of deep thought.”

And this very morning on the Andrew Marr Show on TV he explained that if there was a return to a two year A level course it would enable students to spend more time on things like Art and Music to provide a balance to those subjects that required deep thought.

So what exactly is deep thought? And will I be able to buy some in the deep freeze aisle in M&S?

Well, some research (now there’s the first clue in itself) reveals a lengthy text (clue number two), full of obscure words (ah, have I cracked it already?). Well, no, not quite – it seems it’s a bit more complicated than that. Apparently deep thinking skills include:

  • Asking different sorts of open-ended questions about things
  • Thinking about your own thinking processes
  • Putting things in your own words
  • Applying principles to real situations
  • Analysing information into component parts
  • Connecting separate pieces of information to form larger patterns, guidelines or products
  • Evaluating the validity, morality and aesthetic value of ideas, data or products
  • Drawing logical conclusions
  • Deriving principles
  • Making a case for and against an argument
  • Identifying cause-effect relationships
  • Identifying ethical issues
  • Generating creative and imaginative ideas and innovative strategies

And it also seems there is something called ‘deep reading’ which involves a mixture of horizontal reading (ie in bed?) and vertical reading (ie standing up?).To be effective, the information gathered by horizontal, broad reading needs to appropriately interact with narrow, vertical reading.

So what deep conclusions can we draw from all this? The first, and undoubtedly the most surprising, is that just for once All Change Please! finds itself in agreement with nice Mr Gove that more deep thinking would be a good thing. Except of course, in his desire to return to a romanticised, ivory-tower view of rigorous academic study, he has himself probably not thought through his sound-bite very deeply. If he had, he would have realised that many so-called ‘soft’ subjects, with their extended practical open-ended coursework requirements, provide an excellent opportunity for deep thought and action. And that deep thought is not necessarily verbal in nature, but can also be visual, symbolic, musical, etc. Meanwhile if he is really interested in promoting deep thinking, then what better place to start than by promoting and accrediting the QCA’s Personal Learning and Thinking Skills as part of his new English/French Baccalaureate GCSE proposal?

And has Mr Gove yet realised that what we need is not so much deep ways of thinking, but new ways of thinking, focused around things like complexity, community and communication, related to the new world we find ourselves living in, rather than past times.

As I’ve suggested before, we urgently need to understand a lot more about the way in which people start to think and learn deep and wide from an effective mixture of horizontal Pot Google ‘information snacks’ and vertical five-GCSE Baccalaureate course ‘main meals’ as they gather and process information about the real and virtual world they live in.

Hmm – I think I’ll avoid the deep thought counter at M&S for now. Anyone else for some shallow Pot Googles?

* Those of you with the doubted privilege of an academic literary education will of course immediately recognise the reference in the title of this post to HG Wells, The Island of Dr. Moreau. Or, like me, needed to look it up on Pot Google to discover:

‘that to babble about names that meant nothing was the proper use of speech. He called it “big thinks”, to distinguish it from “little thinks” — the sane everyday interests of life. If ever I made a remark he did not understand, he would praise it very much, ask me to say it again and again, learn it by heart, and go off repeating it.’

**Meanwhile those of you with an academic art history education will instead immediately recognise the photo at the top as an image of a human brain as portrayed by the 1960’s Pop artist Peter Max.