Dumbing Down

If you have read ‘Grammar Control Systems’ (06.11.12) you will remember my colleague who had her own ideas about education, influenced as she was by her teacher-training at a university with academics in (!) As a new teacher it had only taken her a few weeks to realise that the philosophies underpinning her training were at odds with central government control systems. The following article from the TES reveals just how dangerous the government regards these pesky academics with their ‘tremendous expertise’:

PGCE courses could close as schools take responsibility for trainees

PGCE courses could close as schools take responsibility for trainees.
A major overhaul of teacher training being introduced next year will cause “huge disruption” and put long-established university departments with “tremendous expertise” at risk of closure, experts have warned.
The government’s radical changes will encourage schools to take responsibility for training thousands of new recruits who would previously have studied undergraduate and PGCE courses.

Etc etc

You can read the whole article here:

http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=6301733

Top down lock down!

Here is a quote from Ken Robinson speaking at a Royal Society for the promotion of the Arts (RSA) event in 2009

“Getting back to basics includes recognising that great education requires great teaching; it’s not enough to know your discipline, great teachers have to know how to engage people, and great teachers do. And what, really, I think most people find exasperating is when – well intentioned as they are – politicians decide they’re going to take control of a process they don’t know, promote ideas they only half understand and remove the one thing which improves education which is the discretion and creativity of the people actually doing the work.”

(If you don’t know Ken Robinson just put his name into Youtube for a number of interesting talks he has given in recent years).

I was sat in a meeting at the start of the week where we were addressed by one of our local authority Early Years people. She was explaining the latest changes to the way that pupil-profiles are now put together. One such change at a monitoring level was that the inspectors would now be looking at five profiles in great detail; this is up on the old number of three. I asked why this had changed. Her answer was not hugely reassuring: “I just get sent these mail-shots: there is never any explanation of the thinking behind these decisions”.

One new teacher commented that it was a good time to be joining the profession because he did not know the old system so he would not be in the position of having to re-learn anything. Not one teacher in the room chose to put their thoughts into words i.e. the system is constantly being tinkered with and there will be plenty of chances to re-learn and re-learn again as the years go by! Or was it only me that thought this?

Of course this state of constant upheaval is not to be confused with a dynamic system that is in a state of flux due to the practitioners on the ground, Ken Robinson’s “people actually doing the work”, responding to the unique set of challenges in their own setting. This kind of dynamic system would be built from the bottom up and is close to the exact opposite of what we now have.

On exams…

Here is the apparently extra-terrestrial ‘Mein Herr’ holding forth on the subject of exams from a book by Lewis Carroll (an Upas tree is a poisonous tree):

Oh this Upas-tree of Competitive Examinations! Beneath whose deadly shade all the original genius, all the exhaustive research, all the untiring life-long diligence by which our fore-fathers have so advanced human knowledge, must slowly but surely wither away, and give place to a system of Cookery, in which the human mind is a sausage, and all we ask is, how much indigestible stuff can be crammed into it!…Yes, crammed,” he repeated.”We went through all that stage of the disease had it bad, I warrant you! Of course, as the Examination was all in all, we tried to put in just what was wanted and the great thing to aim at was that the Candidate should know absolutely nothing beyond the needs of the Examination! I don’t say it was ever quite achieved: but one of my own pupils (pardon an old man’s egotism) came very near it. After the Examination, he mentioned to me the few facts which he knew but had not been able to bring in, and I can assure you they were trivial, Sir, absolutely trivial! ”
I feebly expressed my surprise and delight. The old man bowed, with a gratified smile, and proceeded. “At that time, no one had hit on the much more rational plan of watching for the individual scintillations of genius, and rewarding them as they occurred. As it was, we made our unfortunate pupil into a Leyden-jar, charged him up to the eyelids then applied the knob of a Competitive Examination, and drew off one magnificent spark, which very often cracked the jar! What mattered that? We labeled it ‘ First Class Spark,’ and put it away on the shelf.”
From Chapter 12 of ‘Sylvie and Bruno Concluded’ by Lewis Carroll (1893)

A demoralised colleague

I sent the following message to a fellow teacher who has been treated with contempt by those employed to support and guide her. She had taught a literacy lesson to a class of five and six year olds. Some of the children had used ‘ellipsis’ (as a set of dots) in their writing because they had learned about these three little dots earlier in the week. The children knew about them and were intrigued by them and by their special name: ellipsis. The management/observers regarded this as reason enough to dismiss the entire lesson as ‘inadequate’. Curiously they felt the need to ‘reassure’ this particular teacher that she was an outstanding teacher but – due to the grave matter of five year olds messing around with dots – the lesson in question had to be judged as ‘inadequate’.

A message of support:

I was dismayed to hear of your recent observation. I really do feel for you. It is an extraordinary process. I am stunned that a school can internalise the punitive OFSTED approach to staff ‘development’ to the extent that utterly demoralising someone is considered ‘what’s best for the children’. The horrible passive-aggressive nature of such encounters with our managers is very unpleasant. Just remember that there are two kinds of authority: hierarchical and natural. The former, in its worst form, is characterised by bogus ‘cleverer than thou’ language and by petty attacks on those who are further down the chain. Both of these characteristics are symptoms of insecurity. Natural authority is not about ‘x’ telling ‘y’ what to do and how to do it but rather by ‘y’ learning from ‘x’ because ‘x’ has more experience and knowledge and hence expertise than ‘y’. With natural authority one can only learn and grow in a supportive atmosphere.

Grammar Control Systems

“Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.”
Oscar Wilde

We had an INSET about teaching grammar today. The DfES have decided to jiggle the curriculum about and, as part of this process, the teaching of grammar has been redefined. This means some aspects of grammar have become more or less important and the order that these grammatical elements should be taught has been tinkered with. The whole process is petty. The DfES reasserts its position over and above ordinary teachers while achieving nothing of real value.
As the meeting continues I realise that a teacher may agree with the state curriculum or not but it is only when a flaw is removed that it is OK to admit you thought it was ridiculous or unhelpful all along. For example I have felt for many years that the division of writing into six text-types (explanation, persuasion, recount, instructions, discussion and report) is reductionist and unhelpful, limiting a child’s idea of what writing is. Today we were told that the new ‘Program of Study’ places much less emphasis on these six text types and that there are now less rigid sets of descriptors for each of them. So now my own thoughts about this are closer to the official version. In a few years my own considerations may be heresy again.
We really did sit there today learning how the government has changed the term ‘embedded clause’ to ‘relative clause’. I don’t know what real linguists would make of this; my point is that it is completely normal for teachers in this country to subordinate their own insight and understanding to a higher authority. Real learning environments should be responding to the needs of the situation and should be in a state of creative upheaval and renewal at all times. How we teach grammar needs little if any of this kind of continual renewal and anyway if teachers can’t be trusted to do this themselves in their own settings should we really be letting them loose in the classroom? ‘Not only will we tell you what, how and when to teach’ says the DfES ‘we also reserve the right to arbitrarily change what, how and when to teach at any time’. The good teacher is a compliant one. Why would you openly question any of this? You’re only making trouble for yourself.
English grammar has barely changed for hundreds of years. But a new government feels the need to put its stamp on it. The most horrid example of this is their definition of a sentence. In our meeting this afternoon we were asked to define a sentence. All ten groups in the room came up with a variation of this: ‘a linguistic unit (a collection of words) that can stand alone to convey meaning using a verb’. Some included references to a subject and an object, some included references to capital letters and full stops. Now look at the DfES’ version:
‘All the words in a sentence are held together by purely grammatical links, rather than merely by links of cohesion. A sentence is defined by its grammar, but signalled by its punctuation.’
This definition might not easily illustrate what a sentence is (!) but it certainly illustrates the desire of the DfES to look cleverer than thou: a symptom of authority without natural authority. And there is no reference to ‘meaning’ in their definition.

Still, it’s not all bad. I spoke to an NQT colleague today (Newly Qualified Teacher) who is openly upset, even disgusted, by numerous aspects of how she must go about her job. Her values and priorities are squeezed out by the machine of state interference. But where did she get all these ideas about how children learn and what is best for children? At a Teacher Training College that’s where! Yes, those pesky academics are filling young trainee teacher’s minds with deep thought and proper reflection on what it means to be a teacher.
This job is for teachers not politicians.