Alas! Schools and Journos: Have you ever Bean Green?

alas-smith-and-jones2

Mel Smith, as the man who thinks he knows everything, and Griff Rhys Jones, as the man who knows he knows nothing, return to catch up on what’s been happening in education, ill-informed as always by the Great British Press.

Smith: Haven’t seen you around for a while then?

Jones: No, not much has been happening recently has it, especially now that Gove chappie has been permanently excluded from schools?

Well, my friend, just wait until you see this in the papers – apparently last summer not nearly as many children managed to pass their GCSEs

Oh, so weren’t they very bright then?

No, no, no, it wasn’t that at all.

All their teachers went on strike then?

No, no. Listen, what happened was that the Tories made the exams they sat much harder to pass. They thought that would make all the kids cleverer.

Oh. That wasn’t a very clever idea then, was it?

Precisely.

And it’s a bit unfair on a whole generation of teenagers who now won’t have as good qualifications as their elders? And I expect all the schools requiring improvement will be given those special tape measures now?

What? Anyway I’ll tell you something else. You won’t believe this. Listen, it says in the paper that apparently a lot of your posh public schools have gone right off the boil and are now at the bottom of all the league tables.

What you mean they are in the Vauxhall league?

Yes, sort of, except it’s now called the Vanarama League.

Vananarama? Is that a new girl-power band or something then?

No, apparently it’s a van leasing company, but that’s not got anything to do with what I’m telling you.

So Eton and Harrow have gone into the van-hire business now then?

No, no, no. Do try and pay attention. It seems their students were all taking the wrong sort of exams that didn’t count in the league tables anymore.

Why were they doing that then?

Because the public schools say the exams their students did were harder than the GCSEs, but the DfE says their new exams are now the most difficult.

Ah, they’re both playing hard to get then?

Yes, I suppose you could say that.  Well it just goes to show you only get what you Gove, don’t you? Anyway, what’s more Camoron wants all schools to be above average in Maths. That’s going to be a bit of a challenge. And then there’s this Little Missy Morgan who’s all in a spin and is going to sack headteachers if they don’t improve their children’s literacy.

Well, it’s important kids learn to throw their litter away in a bin isn’t it?

Exactly. And then there’s their numeracy.

What’s that then?

You know – learning their tables.

Oh, you mean like the difference between a dining table and a bedside table? Why’s that important then?

Well I suppose if you went to IKEA, you’d want to be sure you were buying the right sort of table wouldn’t you?

Yes, and they could use those special tape measures to make sure they were getting the right size.

Anyway after the election in May everything will be different when the Greens get in.

Who are these Greens then? Are they from Mars?

No, don’t be daft. Well I don’t think they are anyway – though looking at some of their policies…

You mean our politicians will all be like green vegetables – sort of limp and tasteless and foul-smelling?

Yes, I expect so.

Oh.  No change there then?

Anyway, I suppose at least they will have a lot of posh vans and drivers to move them around in.

Daisy, Daisy… is she both Right and wrong?

 

One of traditional far Right-wing teachers’ current favourite party games appears to be identifying what they describe as the myths of progressive teaching and learning. They then tweet to each other in utter disbelief and with great smugness when they encounter someone who has not been persuaded by their dogma – their self-assuredness and unwillingness to even consider views other than their own is frightening. Meanwhile the national press picks up on their sensationalist claims which it publishes with delight, giving the general public the mistaken impression that our schools are full of free-thinking, do whatever you like, so-called progressive Marxist teachers. And, as All Change Please! has already observed in RU a trendy teacher?, in reality, teachers of the type they seek to exterminate just don’t exist – they are just too busy in the classroom getting on with the job to even consider the matter.

In the video clip above, Daisy Christodoulo, current doyenne of the Right and author of ‘Seven Myths About Education‘, makes a very reasonable assertion, that knowledge is essential to learning – but then, as her colleagues do, she goes on to perpetuate a myth herself – that progressive teaching involves no knowledge transfer whatsoever. And of course what she doesn’t mention is that from the 1950s – when traditional rote learning was very much the order of the day – to the mid 1990s, standards of literacy apparently remained pretty much the same. Furthermore The Literacy Trust suggests that rates have risen substantially since the late 1990s. Of course the figures do rather depend on what is defined by the term ‘ poor literacy’.  Literacy figures simply a right-wing fantasy

And this pattern is repeated through the rest of the traditionalists’ so-called myths – indeed what they succeed most in doing is revealing their own lack of understanding about what contemporary approaches to education actually involve, and what is currently happening in a positive way in the majority of our schools. Most worryingly, the far Right are succeeding in demonising attempts to find and develop the new ways of learning that are needed to meet the requirements of the 21st Century.

All Change Please! feels that it’s about time some of the Right’s more outrageous statements were challenged, and so here’s All Change Please!’s myth-busting guide to the myths behind the traditionalists’ myths of progressive, child-centred teaching and learning. If the Right want to present a caricature of the Left, then it works the other way round too.

1. There’s no need to learn any facts
Traditionalists believe that progressives believe that teaching children facts prevents understanding and that they don’t need to have any prior knowledge in order to be able to adequately debate issues or solve problems. This is of course utter, utter nonsense as the vast majority of teachers readily agree that children need to acquire knowledge. However, they also realise that if children are only taught facts that their understanding of them will be limited, and that it is sometimes useful to set up learning activities in which children identify for themselves what knowledge they are likely to need and then set about acquiring it for themselves.

2. Just Google it!
Traditionalists believe that progressives believe that because the future is difficult to predict then there’s no point in teaching children anything, and that all knowledge can be easily found on the internet anyway. This is another gross misconception. Teachers accept that, while often very helpful, there are limitations to what can be learnt on-line. They also understand that while certain areas of basic knowledge remain essential, other areas of traditionally taught knowledge are likely to be redundant in the future, and so we need a proper reappraisal of exactly what facts should and do not need to be taught in school.

At the same time, what has become increasingly essential is that children learn how to learn for themselves so that they will be able to easily acquire and the knowledge they eventually do discover they need to have when the future actually arrives. And effectively learning things via the internet is in itself a demanding skill that we should be putting more emphasis on teaching in school, because at present it’s not something we do terribly well.

3. Teacher-led lessons are boring
Traditionalists believe that progressives believe that teacher-led instruction is by definition passive. Of course it’s not, or at least it needn’t be. Everyone knows that teacher-led lessons can be extremely effective and essential, especially when balanced with some practical work, and opportunities for learners to contribute their own ideas. Unfortunately though, there are still some traditional teachers who do little more than stand at the front of the class giving what is essentially a lecture, with pupils copying notes from the board.

4. It’s all about transferable skills
Traditionalists believe that progressives believe that only generic skills should be taught. But so-called progressive teachers realise that   there are indeed a wide range of skills that are directly transferable and could be better taught more effectively if properly managed across the curriculum. But they also accept that there are still certain skills that are unique to each particular subject discipline. In contrast, traditional teachers don’t like the idea that their specialist subject domains might not be quite as specialist as they might think and refuse to make any connections with other subjects. They like to place themselves in a walled garden, whereas in reality the world is rather more open-plan and inter-disciplinary with generic skills being applied alongside recognisable bodies of knowledge.

5. Projects are the only way to learn
Traditionalists believe that progressives believe that project and activity-based learning is the best way to learn. Actually they are probably correct about this one, especially if it is well-managed, guided independent learning that is being developed. However so-called ‘trendy’ teachers still acknowledge that practical work does need to be balanced with traditional knowledge-based learning, although perhaps more on an individual ’need to know’ rather than ‘just in case’ basis. The problem is that traditionalists generally won’t have anything to do with project work. In the first instance they’ve never tried it because they know it doesn’t work. And in any case they’ve never taught that way, and they know they would probably make a complete mess of it.

6. Every child is different
Traditionalists believe that progressives believe that each child learns best in its own particular way and that teaching methods need to reflect this. Again, they are probably right to think this about more modern approaches. Most successful teachers have realised through their own observation and experience that some children learn more effectively if they are presented with knowledge in a visual format or have done something active rather than just being told about it or have read it, i.e. verbally.

Traditionalists have read about a small-scale US academic research experiment that demonstrated that including visual or practical content made no difference to verbally-based knowledge-based test scores, thus apparently proving once and all that they are fully justified in maintaining their ‘sit-still, keep quiet and listen’ single style of teaching that fits a supposedly common style of learning. Of course in practice it’s impossible for more progressive teachers to prepare a different method of delivery for each child in the class (although computer-aided learning metrics claims it can and will), but nonetheless the vast majority of teachers will tell you that lessons that involve visual and practical work are generally likely to be more successful than those that don’t.

 

So having de-mythologised progressive teaching and learning, by this point All Change Please! is of course quite unable to resist the temptation to present its own highly controversial, completely biased – and entirely unsubstantiated by questionable small-sample research data – myths about extreme Right-wing traditionalists.

Progressive teachers believe that the most traditional right-wing teachers tend to like things to be black or white, right or wrong, good or bad, and they get anxious about things that are ambiguous or could be interpreted in more than one way. They enjoy asserting their authority over others and the feeling of being in control over them. They rather like the sound of their own voices and derive satisfaction from the idea that they are filling children’s otherwise empty minds with unquestionable facts and figures.

Traditionalists find teacher-led lessons easier to deliver, because child-centred lessons are much more demanding to manage and might mean they are not entirely in control of the classroom situation. They fear that the class might detect a gap in their knowledge and as a result develop a lack of respect. Assessment is a great deal easier too, because pupils either know the answer or they don’t.

Traditional teachers tend to deny that substantial change is happening in the world and that things will be different in the future, or to put it another way, they express a deep fear of change. While progressive teachers are generally happy to accept that a lot of what traditionalists claim is true, traditionalists feel the need to denounce progressive approaches, and to quote flimsy evidence as proof of the existence of Gove.

But, in conclusion, and echoing Alan Jones’ recent statement that:

“..the truth is that education is about both knowledge and skills, about what’s out there and what’s inside the child. It’s the intelligent blending of the two things that makes for good education, not the exclusive adherence to one or the other.”

what actually exists in the majority of our schools is a generally healthy mix of traditional and progressive teaching and learning, and there should not be any need for either side to feel the need to make unhelpful and highly contentious and misleading statements about the other. And while All Change Please! now feels a whole lot better for having at least launched a few retaliatory missiles, it knows that what’s really needed are some diplomatic peace talks in which the far Left and far Right can come to a negotiated settlement that ensures that today’s children are fully and appropriately prepared for whatever the future brings them.

In every other aspect of life people have evolved and adapted to changing conditions through progress – but All Change Please!‘s concern is that if the educational far Right has its way, we will soon be all extinct.

PISA Takeaways

P1050498-1Does Pisa lean too far to the left or right?

Well, the question of whether the leaning tower of Pisa leans more to the left or right very much depends, of course, on which side of it you are standing. At the same time, if you happen yourself to be leaning either left or right, then it appears to be perfectly upright and proper.

What’s that you say? Oh. Not that sort of Pisa?

(At this point All Change Please! does a quick double-take in the hope that no-one will notice its mistake and think it as stupid as a child from, say, Peru – the country that came at the bottom of the table and was consequently relegated from existence – a position that doubtless England will occupy in three years time after the 2016 PISA World Cup?)

Ah, you mean the PISA that’s been widely reported in the media over the past week in which the right-leaning Gove blamed the left-leaning Labour for the poor results and they then both blamed schools, teachers and pupils in such a way that it didn’t really make a jot of difference to anybody, anywhere?  Yes, well, All Change Please! was just coming to that sort of PISA.

The question about these PISA tests that no-one seems to be bothering to ask, let alone answer, is what exactly is it about them that English children find so difficult? Looking at these examples of test questions:

http://www.oecd.org/pisa/test/

they actually appear to be quite easy-PISA? And while All Change Please! doesn’t know the answer to the problem of why England does so badly, it just might have a theory…

Which is that at secondary level, a teacher is usually appointed to a school because of their subject expertise and academic ability (acquired at University), and they are then labelled, for example, as a History Teacher. They will be largely judged on the success of their pupils obtaining History GCSE and A level results and the number who then go on to University to study History or a related subject. So they then stand in front of their Year 7 (and upwards) class and think that, as the chances are that one or two of their future high-flyers might be sitting in front of them, they had better start preparing them now, just in case. And as a result they approach their lessons through the delivery of a deep, conceptual academic / theoretical understanding as if all the pupils were going to end up become life-long historians. And it’s the same for English and Maths. Instead of concentrating on reinforcing basic literacy and numeracy first, children are being prepared to be (failed) creative writers, literary critics and mathematical geniuses.

So perhaps the problem is that the PISA questions all come with a friendly photo and are placed in a recognisable everyday practical problem-solving context, something our children are ill-prepared for. But ask them instead to:

‘…generate theoretical sample spaces for single and combined events with equally likely, mutually exclusive outcomes; use these to calculate theoretical probabilities; and know that the probabilities of an exhaustive set of mutually exclusive outcomes sum to one.’  (New National Curriculum KS3)

and presumably they’d be well away?

Of course there are other theories too, such as the fact that our exam-fixated students doubtless ask if the PISA test will count towards their GCSE grade, and on learning that it won’t, then treat it with the utter contempt such a waste of their time deserves. Or perhaps they have read PISA-topping Singapore’s Minister of Education, Heng Swee Keat, recent speech in which he sets out the need for a new push towards ‘a more multi-dimensional education that goes beyond academics.’ before going on to say:

‘…time spent doing more drill-and-test means less time for play and rest, for exploring new ideas, for developing social skills. A balance is necessary, but there is no magic formula as to what the right balance is because every child is different.’

and then announcing that he is looking for ways to transform learning so that students are independent thinkers and resourceful learners with a can-do attitude, and ‘to make learning a more joyful journey‘!

Which all sounds exactly like the sort of namby-pamby nonsense the UK Government and the media will do its best to undermine in order to ensure that the exclusive all-inclusive English education system will continue to support the natural right of the social elite to dominate the higher levels of educational attainment.

And then there is of course another point of view entirely:

http://newsthump.com/2013/12/03/chinese-students-probably-all-virgins-insist-british-teenagers/

Which at least manages to see the situation from an alternative perspective, as opposed to the unquestioned assumption that improving our performance in PISA tests is the best way forward for our education system: OECD education report: UK needs new ‘gold standard’ to compete with world’s best
http://feedly.com/e/23CA9na6

And with that in mind, it remains to be seen whether in three years time Gove will come to be acclaimed as the rightful PISA delivery man…

With thanks to Rob B.

Does he take Sugata with that?

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The Daily Torygraph recently published an article provocatively headed “Lessons in spelling ‘have no place in 21st century schools’, reporting an interview with the controversial Sugata Mitra in the TES in which he suggested:

“This emphasis on grammar and spelling, I find it a bit unnecessary because they are skills that were very essential maybe a hundred years ago but they are not right now. Should [students] learn how to write good sentences? Yes, of course they should. They should learn how to convey emotion and meaning through writing. But we have perhaps a mistaken notion that the way in which we write is the right way and that the way in which young people write through their SMS texting language is not the right way. If there is a generation who believe that SMS language is a better way of expressing emotion than our way, then are we absolutely sure that they are making a mistake and we are not?”

The article then included a rather pointless online ‘vote’.

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in which of course 97% agreed with statement a, because statement b is absurd, and not what is being suggested in the first place.

However, at the same time perhaps we need to revisit the whole idea of teaching and learning spelling and grammar in the same way as we do knowledge. We need to acknowledge ‘texting’ as a genuine and popular form of communication with its own conventions and rules. While children probably learn these quickly and independently, perhaps some could do with being taught how to improve their texting? There are two possibilities: either texters make mistakes that leads to confusion, or they don’t. If the former, that justifies the need for teaching them to improve, if the latter, perhaps we should all start to use texting as being a more efficient means of communication?

All Change Please!‘s very smart new smart phone seems to take predictive text one stage further. It not only provides suggestions for the word being writing before it has been completely typed, but also, when as the next word is started it often spookily manages to predicting what word is coming next. So, soon such devices might present us with complete predictive phrases or even sentences? Or even paragraphs? Perhaps in the future most people will simply select from pre-written paragraph templates, aided by artificial intelligence?

Meanwhile perhaps we need to ask our teenagers themselves for their views on what aspects of spelling and grammar they feel are important to learn? “Does he take spelling with that?”

More recently has been the case of Apprentice finalist, runner-up and star Luisa Zissman, who has attracted much criticism and scorn for tweeting…

“Can you all help me out as I’m crap at grammar. Is it bakers toolkit or baker’s toolkit with an apostrophe?!”

before adding:

“I like the look of bakers. Would it be terrible to stick with bakers?”

So maybe how a word looks is now important than whether it is grammatically correct? And indeed from a commercial branding perspective, that’s fair enough – after all we don’t, for example, question why there are no apostrophes in Morrisons or Boots.  And it seems the last laugh here is on the media, because, All Change Please! has been very reliably informed…

‘Bakers Toolkit’ IS acceptable – it’s called appositional agreement, where you link two words together by proximity, the commonest example being ‘car park’. Nobody thinks of writing ‘cars’ park’, even though that would make perfect sense. Actually, of the three alternatives, ‘Baker’s Toolkit’, ‘Bakers’ Toolkit’ and ‘Bakers Toolkit’, the one I like least is the second, since it implies a toolkit for a certain identifiable number of actual bakers, which isn’t the point.’

Though interestingly, when challenged, the Daily Telegraph didn’t seem to want to know about this, and maintained its stance that Bakers should have an apostrophe as there was more than one Baker.

But the final words must surely go to The Daily Mash for this report that clearly explains exactly how truly amazing All Change Please! and its merry band of old-fashioned pedantic followers really are…

http://www.thedailymash.co.uk/news/society/people-who-highlight-minor-grammar-points-are-amazing-2013082378916

Image credit:   Flickr:Didi

Let them read books…

1001 books you must read before you die. That’s equivalent to about just 10 a year if you live to be 100?

There’s been a lively debate recently about Mr Gove’s suggestion that all children should read 50 books a year. This presents some interesting problems, not the least how the books will be selected, who will pay for them and how each child’s reading will be monitored, and of course, most importantly, assessed. How long will it be before the smartest children simply buy a copy of ‘1001 books you must read before you die’, which neatly summarises each one?

http://www.amazon.co.uk/1001-Books-Must-Read-Before/dp/1844034178/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1302461606&sr=1-2

or as one reviewer has put it:

‘you don’t have to actually read all those classic and influential novels, because this superb reference book provides enough information in itself to give the reader an excellent literary overview. With this single volume, you can avoid feeling that you’ve read so much that dying might be a merciful release from all that goddamned literature; instead, each pleasantly brief entry provides enough to grasp the essence of the book in question’.

Meanwhile for the less ambitious, there’s always ‘501 must-read’ books. That’s just 5 a year…
http://www.amazon.co.uk/501-Must-Read-Books/dp/0753713438/ref=reg_hu-rd_dp_img

Of course another really good solution might be to equip every child with an iPad-type touch tablet, loaded with the 550 books they are expected to read as they move through school (or 650 if they stay on to the Sixth Form).

And why exactly 50 a year one wonders? According to the Guardian:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/mar/22/gove-50-books-children-laureate
it seems Mr Gove picked up on the idea while visiting the USA, so we can safely assume it’s been worked out as one a week, stupid. Err.. does that mean children are excused from reading a book during Christmas week and Easter week then, or….?

It’s a sad reflection that something that is actually potentially worthwhile ends up being widely ridiculed just because it’s been said by an education minister whose pronouncements can only now be read as a bit of a joke…

Educashun still isn’t working

I was recently clearing out some old papers from the loft when I came across a newspaper cutting from the early 1980s. Entitled ‘What employers want’ it was a report of speech given by the director of the Manpower Services Commission at an NUT conference. It included a list of what employees wanted from school leavers:

  • the ability to read, write and do arithmetic
  • some understanding of the need to produce and sell goods at prices people could afford
  • an appreciation of the need to work consistently, quickly and accurately, and to be punctual
  • an understanding of the different types of jobs and industries
  • the ability to communicate, to join in group discussions, and to use a phone
  • the ability to produce practical solutions to everyday problems
  • the capacity to learn from experience
  • the ability to get on with a range of people, and to recognise the need to share knowledge and skills with them

The speaker also called for a new look at the the effect of university entry qualifications on decisions about which courses of study to follow in school ‘that go far beyond traditional academic disciplines‘. He called for subjects to be grouped with clear academic and vocational aims, and that ‘a new approach is required‘ to improve young people’s knowledge of the world of work than is covered in the traditional curricula.

Now, there’s more to education than simply preparing people for the world of work of course, but nonetheless, some thirty years later, we are still pursuing a university-led system in which vocationally-related areas of study are seen to be soft options. And the basic needs of employers are still under-valued in terms of formal assessment, particularly when one now adds in such things as team-work and flexibility. At the same time thousands of school leavers with sound academic A level qualifications are now having to look for employment instead of gaining a place at a university.

But I guess there is one thing that has improved since the early 1980s – now at least, most young people seem to know how to use a phone…

Just In Case

In my Polyunsaturated facts post I mentioned the concept of Just In Time learning, in which one only learns what one needs when it is specifically needed. Since then I came across this item in which the author interestingly discusses what he calls Just In Case education, referring to the approach in our schools of filling children up with knowledge ‘just in case’ they need it in later life.

Indeed ‘Just In Case’ is a way of life we are used to: “Eat up you lunch just in case you don’t manage to get any supper tonight”; “Buy some extra tins of soup just in case you can’t get to the shops again, or they run out”, etc.

While ‘Just In Case’ is indeed quite a good description of the rationale behind a lot of education provision, the more interesting question is how does the current model need to change to accommodate the world of information snacking?

For starters, we need a ‘must eat to survive’ course which provides everyone with the absolute essentials for life – how to read, write and do basic maths along with some basic communication and creative problem solving skills.

Then on to the main course – a ‘choose what you want and eat as much as you like’ tasty smorgasbord of interesting and unusual wider contextual knowledge and understanding of the way the world works – a general sense of language, geography, history, the science of the universe, logic and creativity, analysis and evaluation, the physical and psychological needs of ourselves and others, attitudes and values, order and chaos, risk and change, learning how to learn, etc. These are not so much pre-cooked stodgy school dinners, but more like delicious, tasty take-aways, individually chosen according to one’s tastes and dietary requirements and the needs of the local community.

And finally for dessert, the icing on the cake – a more in-depth study of a narrow range of ‘subjects’ that reveal the need for detail, accuracy and quality in life and the world of work.

Although this alternative curriculum is described here as a three course meal, there’s no need to consume them in that order or manner. Indeed there are many who suggest that six smaller meals a day is better than three large ones.

So there is no longer any ‘Just In Case’ learning here, but the foundation of a sensible diet that puts information snacking into context, and provides everyone with enough starting questions and potential sources of information to explore when the time comes.

Training Tomorrow’s Teachers Today

A recent comment on another post has raised important issues about the current provision for initial teacher training. If nothing else, we are certainly going to need a highly capable, committed and motivated workforce to deliver the appropriate and effective educational experiences that we need to start to provide in the 21st century. Which is why it was worrying to read the account of an ITT lecturer’s experiences of preparing tomorrow’s teachers today. Are five A*-C GCSEs and three C grade GCEs enough to qualify someone to train to be a competent teacher?

Here’s what ‘Roberta’ wrote:

“After 35 years in education (secondary and higher), not including my own, I think that perhaps we do need to take a pragmatic stance on primary and secondary education. Perhaps it is for the production of employable people who will be able to take on the roles required by their employers, people who are punctual, civil, creative, responsible, curious, eager to learn new skills and information, who are literate and numerate. I am not talking about ‘factory fodder’ here, but young people who will join the professions.

Universities are now experiencing ‘bad behaviour’ amongst a large proportion of first year undergraduates, these include Primary Teacher trainees, whose antics are those that one might expect from Year 10 and 11 pupils. This inappropriate behaviour is manifesting itself in the lecture room, a situation which has never occurred before this year, with the open use of mobile phones and MP3 players, laughing and talking over the lecturer’s voice and during session tasks, absenteeism, eating and drinking (including alcohol) and complaints when asked to make contributions to teaching sessions.

Admonition is greeted with complaints that lecturers are being patronising and since the students are paying fees, they are able to do as they please.The idea that they may be disrupting the learning of others does not occur to them. Their refusal to carry out tasks, unless they contribute to formal assessment and final degree classifications, is bewildering for those of us who see learning as a continuum. The idea of engaging with learning because that is why they are attending university seems to be beyond their comprehension. This is from people with a minimum of three C grades at A level.

For the most part, these are young people who have chosen this career path, not ‘ended up’ teaching through Clearing, due to unexpectedly poor A Level grades. They are recruited to Initial Teacher Education early in the academic year before they finish secondary school and references and good predicted grades are being given by their schools. What is happening? If this is deemed to be acceptable behaviour by these young people, who are our future educators, what hope is there for those who emerge from the secondary school system barely literate and numerate with a disaffected attitude towards society?

In addition, the government’s QTS tests in English and Maths, taken towards the end of their undergraduate (and postgraduate) teacher training, are proving a really difficult hurdle for many, to the extent that Michael Gove has announced that a Conservative government would limit the number of times that they can be re-taken by trainee teachers. What is this saying about the level of education of our young people, if those with fairly decent A levels are struggling with literacy and numeracy?”

I’m reminded of a recent cartoon in which an excited sixth-former had just opened a letter offering him a place on a teacher-training course. “All I need” he is announcing to his parents ” is an A, a B and a C. And they’ll teach me the rest of the alphabet when I get there…”

So any suggestions as to how this situation needs to be changed that don’t involve the traditional reaction of  the need to get back to the good old days of formal academic education? As always I look forward to your comments…

Going for Gold

Did you see this recent news item?

2012 Olympic Games Medal Shock!

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‘The Olympic Games Committee made a surprise announcement today in which it stated that in future Gold medals will only be awarded to the winners of the 100 metres, which it considers to be the only true test of an athlete. Winners of other track events that involve at least some competitive speed running will only be awarded Silver medals, while other, so called ‘soft sports’ such as pole-vaulting or horse-riding will only gain winners Bronze medals. Team games, in which it is impossible to identify a single winner, and sports that can be played professionally, such as football and boxing, will still be offered as recreational fringe events, but no medals will be awarded. A spokesperson said ‘It’s essential not to further devalue the gold standard, and we hope that this action will encourage more athletes to train for and compete in the 100 metres’.

Crazy, and of course quite untrue. Except that in the UK that’s exactly how we view the current education system – we prepare everyone for success in one event that only a small proportion of entrants are capable of succeeding in. What makes it worse is that the one event is, by definition, ‘academic’ – theoretical rather than practical. An academic is ‘a person who works as a researcher (and usually teacher) at a university, college, or similar institution in post-secondary (tertiary) education’. Why is it that we all want our children to be brilliant academics, but are quick in a discussion to dismiss an idea as being ‘academic’, i.e. of theoretical rather than any practical relevance? As a result we have a nation full of trained 100 metre runners, the vast majority of whom have no chance of ever achieving Gold, and frequently see themselves, and are also seen by potential employers, as failures and as such un-equipped  for any other event, such as work in the outside work. And how much longer will the ‘essay’ and the multiple choice question remain the main format for assessment, given that few jobs involve a great deal of essay writing or answering mcqs.

This attitude is by no means new, and has been something that as a society we have been dearly clinging on to for centuries, while other countries seem to have been able to move on and value technical and vocational education in a far more positive way. Somehow we need to bring about a major shift in the way we perceive and value education in the UK, and re-naming schools as ‘academies’, making A levels more difficult and getting more people to study subjects such as English and History to degree level is not the direction we should be going in. In just about every area of business, commerce, health, defence, housing, farming, etc., there have been changes during the past 60 years on a scale that make them unrecognisable from the way they were in the 1950s. The single exception is education where, apart from the largely inappropriate use of computers, little has altered except in name. If the UK is to remain, or even become, in any way competitive in the global market place, it’s much too late therefore for a slow, evolutionary incremental shift in public opinion and institutional structures, curriculum and teaching method. We need to think the unthinkable. Nothing less than a short, sharp revolution in needed.

I have no grand plan or costed strategy for development, but here are a few of the sort of things we ought to be currently considering:

• We need a shift away from the idea that we all attend compulsory full-time schooling between 4 and 16. It’s always struck me that the single most inappropriate environment for a 14 year old is to be required to sit still in silence for hours on end listening to adults who think they know everything.

• The traditional school structure and organisation is entirely outmoded for the modern age. We need to develop institutions that facilitate a more effective daily mix of exposure to teaching styles and learning experiences, essentially including independent learning.

• Students need to be given and take more responsibility for their own learning, utilising the innovative possibilities of innovative computer technology, rather than simply using IT to reinforce and automate traditional approaches.

• The use of the slogan “What have you learnt today?’ could be used to prompt a genuine approach to lifelong learning for all in which the act of learning something new everyday is recognised and valued by individuals and employers.

• How can all intelligences and abilities come to be seen as being equal, and none more equal than others? The emphasis on academic education is only appropriate for the roughly 5% of the population who are suited to it. We need some sort of single national award system that recognises a relevant comparative ‘gold’ standard across all courses.

• In this day and age are we really still unable to teach every child how to achieve basic standards in literacy and numeracy? Standards have improved slightly over recent years, but there’s clearly something badly wrong here that needs sorting out.

• We need to introduce of a valued certificate or ‘qualification’ of basic achievement that recognises the practical application of reading, writing and arithmetic in daily use, alongside a similarly valued certificate of personal learning and creative thinking/problem-solving skills, both taken at any age when the learner is ready.

• Currently teachers have five training days a year which are mostly spent on being introduced to new administrative procedures. There needs to be a major investment in effective and compulsory in-service training / CPD (Continuing Professional Development) for teachers to enable them to keep up-to-date with their rapidly changing subject knowledge and with the new substantially different methods of teaching and learning afforded by developments in IT.

• By narrowing the range of knowledge and understanding that is now examined we have successfully raised the number of students gaining A level passes and going into Higher Education. We have steadily improved the number of children who get five GCSE A* to C grades. But when are we going to start doing something for the other 50% of learners who have limited qualifications and remain alienated by an education system that has little to offer them?

• In terms of a quick fix, one of the problems is that children’s attitudes towards school and learning is heavily influenced by their parents’ experiences. Most of today’s parents were at failing comprehensive schools in the 1970s and 1980s and remain unconvinced of the value of education. Today’s children, who have grown up in a narrow assessment-led National Curriculum culture, will become parents in the next two decades. How do we ensure that they will have a different, more enlightened view of education to pass on to their children?

Ironically, sadly all these things are probably somewhat ‘academic’. It’s difficult to see future governments or administrative organisations initiating or welcoming change on this level. Somehow we need to find a way to take control of our own future learning and growth.