Monday, 20 May 2013

Sitting on the fence can be quite uncomfortable

This weekend (apart from getting very drunk and disagreeing with La Child about the merits of Romanian Castrato Vampire Eurovision entries) I ‘ave been mostly thinking about stuff educational.

In particular, we’ve had the great Gove brouhaha of course, with teachers unions standing on one side passing votes of no confidence and throwing rotten tomatoes, and Gove striking a decidedly lonely figure on the other side bemoaning the rabid Marxist ideology of teachers and generally chucking brickbats. The crux, so far as I understand it, is thus: Gove thinks that the only way to improve standards is to introduce rigour, insist on rote learning, and get the basics right, ensuring children know their adjectives from the adverbs and can recite their times tables backwards with confidence; teachers say that all sounds lovely, but in reality it would take us back thirty years and fly in the face of all accepted modern teaching practice, with its emphasis on Inquiry- and Problem-based learning. Children don’t learn, say the teachers, if what they’re learning appears to them to have no practical application. You have to make it interesting. You have to teach in context. Fine, says Gove, but first you have to give children the basic building blocks; you can’t be creative without knowing how first to express that creativity.

I’ve always been cursed with a lawyer’s mindset: there are always two sides to every story, there is merit in all arguments. Life is the navigation of an ocean of different shades of grey, and other such noises. And up until not that long ago that’s precisely how I would have viewed this particular issue. Yes, you teach in context, yes, you should make it interesting but at the same time children do need to know the basics. If you can’t read, you’ll find your ability to learn severely curtailed. If you don’t know your times tables, you’ll find that trip down to the greengrocer’s so much more difficult (and yes, that apostrophe is in precisely the right place, thank you). Both sides are right. Go away, kiss and make up, children.

Now, however, I’m not so sure. I’m becoming increasingly influenced by two quite remarkable men – Sir Ken Robinson and Sugata Mitra (if either name is new to you, look up their TED talks here and here) – and I now find myself falling off the fence towards the teachers.

The most successful people always seem to be those who can be creative. Those who can see things from a fresh perspective, those who are unafraid to ignore what came before and who can see what might lie ahead. The ability, in essence, to say ‘yes, I know that’s how we normally do things, but what if we were to do this instead?’ It’s a skill we’re all born with – it’s how babies learn about the world around them – and yet it’s a skill that the current education system chips away at. As soon as you enter the system you’re told ‘this is how it works’. Opportunities to discover for yourself are few and far between as you slowly but inexorably work towards first SATS tests, then GCSEs and A-Levels. This is how you write, this is how you add, this is how it is. I remember when I was at school, questioning why something was done the way it was done and being told ‘because that’s how you pass the exam.’ By the time children leave the system their ability to view life creatively has taken a beating, and yet at that point we then take them by the hand and say ‘now you are adults, now we expect you to go forth and shape our future world. Toodle pip.’

There’s a disconnect between what we want children to learn, and how we think they should learn. A mismatch. A conflict. It just isn’t working. It may have worked once upon a time when we needed to churn out perfect little clones to go out into the Empire capable of neat handwriting and instant recollection of mathematical shortcuts, but it’s not working now that we have so much information available for almost instant recall. I’m not suggesting, of course, that there’s no need for handwriting or a knowledge of basic arithmetic, say, but the emphasis placed on these things, their importance, is overstated.

Let me give you an example from my professional background. When I started in law, there was a huge emphasis on library skills. We all had to be able to walk into a law library and find information. Physical research skills were vital. Now fast forward a bare 15 years, and find me a single trainee solicitor in any firm that still routinely (or ever) goes anywhere near a law library. Caselaw, legislation, textbooks, all available online. What once took half a day of concerted research can now be found in minutes from the comfort of your desk. Does that impact on the ability of new solicitors to do their job? No, of course not. It frees them to concentrate on doing it, rather than wasting their time looking stuff up. Experience, the ringing of vague bells in the back of the head, counts for more than rote knowledge. But in schools, at least if Gove has his way, it will all be about rote knowledge – and to a certain extent already is, because we already have SATS, and testing, and Ofsted, and observation and oversight.

This isn’t just a holdover from the Empire. This is our maddening need to score performance, isn’t it? Our modern desire to place things into a list. We must score schools, we must be able to tell how well they’re doing. Like some grotesque real life version of the X Factor we have to pit one school against the other and be able to find them wanting. And how do you measure a school’s performance? You test its product. You test the children. And if you test the children, then the children need to know how to pass the test. So they’re taught to pass it, and inquiry and curiosity take a back seat.

It’s fashionable to say the system is broken, but it’s not broken – it simply, as Sugata Mitra says, does a job that’s no longer fit for purpose. And while in some circles (particularly, I confess, one we find ourselves in with La Child who is, as I may have mentioned before, quite clever) it’s also fashionable to blame teachers for the lack of support for children who don’t quite fit the system, it’s not the teachers’ fault. It’s the system’s fault. It’s Gove’s fault, and it’s our fault for accepting a system that is not fit for purpose, and forcing teachers to work with it.

Sorry, a bit long and ranty for a Monday afternoon this. I’ll find a video of a cat being a Ninja for the next one.