Back to the Future

I went to school in the 1970′s. Some people say this was the time when it all went wrong. When state schools became all fluffy and child centred, when they renounced the traditional methods. Perhaps I just went to the wrong kind of state school, but this is not my memory at all. I remember it as a time when we kept our mouths shut and did as we were told. A time when those of us who refused to comply would be screamed at, humiliated, or beaten with a cane. Our lessons were traditional, we learned by rote, and we did an awful lot of copying from the board. Children were streamed by their perceived ability, with those at the ‘top’ given extra attention, while those at the ‘bottom’ were shunted to one side.

This is not a time to which I would want us to return. Despite all the difficulties it can cause us as educators, I am delighted that children now have a voice, and know their rights. Even though it makes a teacher’s job harder, I think it is wonderful that we are asked to engage children, rather than simply insisting that they comply. I have a theory that our view of how education should be is based (at least partly) on our own experiences as a school child. The terror I felt as a child, at the hand of adults, has coloured my entire vision of what education can and should look like. Corporal punishment was outlawed in state schools in the United Kingdom in 1987. Some of the people reading this blog post may not even have been born when this change was made. So please let us not forget, when we hark back to the ‘good old days’ that for some of us they didn’t feel that ‘good’ at all.

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Masters of the Universe

Yesterday it was announced that a Labour Government would create a new designation of ‘Master Teacher’, as part of a ‘drive to raise standards’. Setting aside any questions about whether this is a good idea or not, when I run the word ‘Master’ through my brain, here’s how the ticker tape comes out:

… man … boy … strong … powerful … master plan … public school master … master race … slave … masterpiece … masterful … cane … dominate …

At this point the ticker tape gets visual, so I’ll spare you the details. But when the tape runs out, I’m left wondering: ‘Hey, where were all the women?’

Words do not exist in a vacuum: they come with connotations. They have historical and cultural associations. The term you choose defines what your idea is. So what I’d like to know is this: does Mr Hunt visualise squads of Master Teachers, grasping their subjects by the neck and squashing their weaker colleagues into shape? Or does he actually mean a group of subject and pedagogy specialists, both women and men, who work alongside their colleagues to model and build good practice? And, if it is the latter, might I respectfully suggest that he picks an alternative* (and preferably a more inclusive) term instead.

* e.g. ‘expert teacher’, ‘consultant teacher’, ‘mentor teacher’ or perhaps even (gasps) ‘advanced skills teacher’.

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Stop Making Sense

Inside every word is a tiny capsule of sense. You can sound words out, you can name their parts, but meaning only comes out when you get them into the right context. Suddenly, the sense goes POP! Let me tell you a story …

Shanghai, China. We have just bought a wooden frog. It makes a croaking sound when you rub its back.

A: [excited] I didn’t know Assassia was real!

S: Assassia?

A: Yeah. I thought Assassia was only in Minecraft. I didn’t realise it was a real tree.

S: [puzzled] Assassia? What’s that?

A: It’s the wood that this frog is made from. See. It says so on the bag.

S: Ah. [smiling] You mean Acacia.

It was a perfectly plausible attempt at saying the word. It might even have passed muster in a phonics screening. If you’re not aware of its Greek etymology, then Assassia is as good a pronunciation as any. But I was only able to understand what my son was saying once I could place what he said in context. Meaning is language in context. English has a tricksy nature; a rich historical background all of its very own. Frequently it does strange things, like making the same sound for two different words (hole and whole), or different sounds for the same one (Reading and reading). And let’s not even go near rough, through, bough and cough.

The Year One phonics screening test is not a test of reading, it is a test of a child’s skill at decoding words out of context. It is a test designed to ensure teacher compliance with a government mandate. And it is a test in which children as young as five learn the lesson that, in school, they can pass or they can fail. I don’t know about you, but I am bewildered by these thoughts. Like Winston Smith in 1984, I cannot get them to make sense – the act of doublethink is beyond me. If I was going to name some imaginary monsters, I would not name them pog or queeb or strom. I would call them the Grumblegrowlerator, or the Slimyblobificon, or maybe even the Tssktsskpurrificalt. But then I’m engaged in the creative process of trying to make sense, because that’s what I always thought language was for. How on erath could I be so datf?

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Informed Consent

Teacher: You’re going to do your baseline test now, Charlie.

Charlie: Why?

Teacher: Because we need data.

Charlie: What’s data?

Teacher: It’s something we can use to measure systems. To see if they are efficient.

[There is a pause.]

Teacher: Think of it as a game, rather than a test.

Charlie: What’s the prize?

Teacher: There isn’t one. It says in the manual: ‘Any offer of a reward may skew the data and is not permitted.’

Charlie: Will you play the game with me, Miss?

Teacher: I’m not allowed to.

Charlie: Why not, Miss?

Teacher: Because … well, because they think I might help you.

Charlie: But you’re meant to help me.

[There is a long pause.]

Teacher: Will you do the test now, Charlie?

Charlie: [starting to wriggle] I don’t want to play this game. I want to do Lego with Ben.

Teacher: Later. But not as a reward for doing the test.

Charlie: Can I go out to play yet?

Teacher: Do the test. And then you can. But not as a reward for …

Charlie: [urgently] I need a poo.

Teacher: Off you go, then.

 

This post is for the June #blogsync hosted by Chris Waugh @Edutronic_Net. This month’s topic is testing in schools. You can sign up here.

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Simply the Best

“access to the best that has been thought and written …” Michael Gove

I’ve always been wary of the notion of a literary canon: a list of the best that has ever been written. In part, my concern stems from worries about who gets to decide what is ‘best’ (Mr Gove, apparently). I also fear that, since women and minorities did not have an equal chance of publication until relatively recently, the ‘best of’ list will consist mostly of dead white men. (Thus sending a subconscious message to any girls who might dare dream of becoming a writer.) But mainly my concern stems from the idea that we can say what is ‘best’ when it comes to fiction. Because ‘best’ implies a value judgement, and my values may not be the same as yours. Are we talking about the ‘best’ in terms of what we might call literary merit? Do we mean ‘best’ in respect to a novel’s political or social impact? Are we looking for books that live on in the public consciousness, long after they were written? Do we want the ‘best’ in the sense of inspiring children to love literature? What kind of ‘best’ is best?

Now it appears that, when Mr Gove talked about giving children access to ‘the best that has been thought and written’, he actually meant ‘in the 19th Century’ and ‘if you venture into the twentieth century, then only by the writers of the British Isles’. But if you’re going to say that you want ‘the best’, and you narrow that with geographical and historical boundaries, you are hoist by your own petard. Because it appears that Mr Gove didn’t mean ‘the best’, he meant ‘what I personally believe is the best’. In truth, I’m not that concerned about my own children. They read widely already. It would take a damned awful book to destroy their love of reading. But I worry about those children who do not come from a background where they read for pleasure. Because books are not medicine: you can’t feed a child a dose of Dickens or Austen to overcome social disadvantage. You are more likely to perpetuate the gap if you tell children that only some authors are approved as being ‘good for them’.

Books act as a window into another world. They give us access to other lives, to other ways of living and different ways of thinking. When you inhabit a story character, you are transported into another time and place. It doesn’t matter that the characters in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies are all boys, when I read it I was Ralph, desperate for a sense of order and democracy. It doesn’t matter that Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is set in the southern states of the US, when I read it I was Scout, confused and devastated by inequality and hatred. To my mind the ‘best’ books are those that we can inhabit. Those books where, when we finish reading them, we are not quite the same person as we were when we started. And I believe that knowing which books will achieve such a miracle is the skill of the English teacher, in their own context, and for their own students. So why not let the teachers decide which books are ‘best’ for their students? Now that’d be a novel idea.

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The Rules of Home School

1. Although we have a timetable, learning can take place at any time.

2. Your uniform is what you deem appropriate for our day’s activities. You decide.

3. Clean up after yourself (a.k.a. ‘life skills’).

4. Handwriting matters.

5. Reading for pleasure is never wasted time. Read, read, read, then read some more.

6. You can wear nail polish if you want. It just didn’t occur to you to ask yet.

7. It won’t always be what you want, but we’ll try our best to make it what you need.

8. Our world is made up of maths, and geography, and science, and history, and art, and drama, and music, and language, and all sorts of other wonderful things. The motto of Home School is that we hunt it all down. Together.

9. Please, go ahead and think sideways.

10. ………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

(The grown-ups don’t have to make all the rules.)

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Looking for Leonardo

We went looking for Leonardo da Vinci. The interest started with a library book from school, a book that got read from cover to cover, over and over again, until all the pages threatened to fall out. Then I found a wonderful pop-up book with models of his machines. Leonardo: the original Renaissance Man. He could literally turn his hand to anything. So it was that we had to see The Last Supper in Milan (harder than you’d imagine – book well ahead). We had to go to Vinci, Leonardo’s birthplace near Florence. And we definitely, absolutely, imperatively had to see The Mona Lisa in Paris.

The museum in Vinci is lovely. It is small and modest. There are models in the museum, built from Leonardo’s drawings. These show you his genius in the simplest, most obvious terms. There are lots of ‘Did you know?’ moments. Did you know that … he designed the first life preserver, the first diving suit, the first tank, the first plane, the first bike? Leonardo came from humble beginnings, but he painted and designed for dukes and kings. He had creative ambitions, even though many of his ideas never reached their end point. He absolutely loved to experiment and he didn’t appear to be too worried if some of his experiments were not successful.

I wasn’t sure what to expect of The Last Supper. It took Leonardo four years to paint. He used an innovative technique for his fresco, involving varnish. This decision has caused headaches for art restorers ever since. The latest restoration took 22 years. 22 years. Why did they bother? Well, there is something about this painting that transcends any other artwork I have ever seen. Perhaps it is the setting, a simple, echoing refectory where monks gathered to eat. Perhaps it is that only a handful of people can visit at any one time. Perhaps it is because the lines of symmetry and composition are perfect. Whatever the reason, this painting literally shines. You can see Leonardo’s genius, echoing down through the centuries, even though so much of the original image has been lost.

And then there is the Mona Lisa. This small, dark, enigmatic painting is one of the most famous in the world. To be honest, it’s a bun fight. People push forwards, reaching up with their cameras, desperate to prove that they have been in the same room as this tiny capsule of genius. We squeeze our way to the front, ignoring the clamour around us. And then, as we look at the painting, we talk about Leonardo, remembering all that our books have told us. How he carried his Mona Lisa around with him, until the end of his life. How he painted this lady with a smile, so unlike the other paintings of this period we have seen. We wonder why, all these years later, so many people flock to see the handful of paintings that remain. And I whisper to my children, so that no one else can hear, ‘I reckon they just want to stand in the presence of genius.’ The children nod their agreement.

‘I think I will be an artist,’ my daughter says. And as we walk away, I can’t stop smiling.

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