After a restful Christmas break, my thoughts have turned to work again. After a good natured discussion with a dear teaching friend that lasted well into the early hours, it inspired me to get out of my writing slumber. He showed me a clip of a school in London, dubbed ‘the strictest school in Britain’, with outstanding results and an emphasis on knowledge over skills. It showed an impressive Black, White and Brown kaleidoscope of youthful, OFSTED friendly wholesomeness but left me feeling disillusioned and hollow and saddened with current trends in U.K. education.
My thoughts on the video were akin to that of a dystopian vision of the future where students are ‘jarheads’. Empty data storage vesseled automatons that move from corridor to corridor in militaristic fashion. Not a hair out of place, let alone dyed a different colour or in a different style. The thought of this school terrified me for reasons that may rest beyond my conscious reasoning. Part of it is a reaction to the world of 2016, post-Brexit and Trumpit. This type of school seems to represent the values of a forgotten era that the right wing hold onto (but never truly existed), where old fashioned values reigned supreme, there was no crime, there was no moral decay, there was no questioning of authority. Everyone had the same haircut and talked in the same way. It is a school that some people will rejoice in. Some of us will agree with the values of this school wholeheartedly and they will be thinking that I’m one of the strange ones for being such a miserable cynic.
Regardless, the idea that knowledge should be emphasised over skills is one that seemed peculiar to me. It generates a different end point of education that knowledge has value in and of itself. In this case, then what is the real purpose of education according to the philosophy of this school? If it isn’t to prepare students for the ‘real world’ then are we to assume that its purpose is to acquire knowledge for knowledge’s sake. If that is the case, then who exactly decides which nuggets of knowledge are more valuable than others? As someone I can’t remember once said: ‘One man’s knowledge is another man’s trivia’.
Agendas and Motives
Perhaps this is the crux of the problem. The field of education seems to be host to an assortment of lefties, hippies and anti-establishment types (myself included) that expect and assume our liberal values are the correct ones and should be indoctrinated into the minds of impressionable students. Notions of fairness, tolerance, equality, justice and other lovely, fuzzy things are promoted to students on a daily basis. This is alongside the world that they actually see, where these concepts are battered, bruised and shattered everywhere you look. They overhear their parents’ conversation at dinner or open up their browser to any news site and they see a world their teacher doesn’t talk about, where xenophobia is on the rise and the rhetoric is one of fear. The world that their hippie dippie teacher presents and the one that they see outside the classroom walls is almost contradictory. Liberal minded readers may be nodding their heads at this point, but let us remind ourselves that our conception of what is morally good and ‘the right thing to do’ is also subjective. Again, who is it that sets these parameters of right or wrong and how can we be so sure that our version is the right one?
So even the most naïve liberal minded teacher will recognise that education has always had an agenda appropriate to its time and place. From the days of Ancient Babylon, where scribes were taught to complete tax returns on stone tablets to the days of the Church instructing students in religious dogma and subsequently forming the basis for the state school system as we know it today in the UK.
Plenty of politicians, school administrators and associated bureaucrats have told us what we should be teaching, when it should be done and how we should go about doing this. Yet one thing is noticeable in an age where access to information is almost limitless. Why?
We live in a time where the likes of U.K. Education Secretary, Michael Gove, can say that the British public have ‘had enough of experts’, it only confirms the cult of stupidity, ignorance, hatred and fear that seems endemic and quashes a genuine intellectual debate on such matters. Successive governments cannot resist the urge to tinker with the education system, deciding that their predecessors broke it for the sole purpose of political point scoring. The focus turns to how things will be better in the future rather than why. We are now at a stage where genuine innovation in the UK seems like far too frightening and risky a prospect. We are starting to look backwards to ideas that were previously scrapped but are now seen as progressive merely for being different to what they are now. This extends to our treatment of qualifications. A level results go up? The exams are too easy so make it harder. GCSE results are down? Our kids are getting dumber. Blame the previous government and reintroduce O levels. There’s always a black and white answer to be had for every grey matter.
Yet, the question I asked at the beginning still eludes the tinkerers and the talking heads. The only thing we can all truly agree on is that the purpose of education is to ‘learn’. Without sounding like an annoying philosophy student, can we even assume we all know what ‘learning’ actually means?
21st century educators are generally perceived not to teach in the same way as those in the 19th century. A combination of factors, including the development of education research, neuroscience and psychology as well as the increasing awareness of governments to the economic benefits of a good education system, have all contributed. Not to mention the legal inconvenience of hitting a student over the head with a ruler when they get the answer wrong.
This wealth of research has told us that we all have particular methods of activity where our learning efficiency is maximised. We might be kinaesthetic and respond better to moving around or we might be highly visual. Or we might be that weird kid who much prefers copying off the board and writing the same line 100 times.
Even with this information, even with a much more advanced understanding of students with special educational needs, this wealth of knowledge is wasted with every hour of instruction that goes by. Too often teachers don’t have the time to plan effectively for the plethora of SEN students in their 30 strong classes or are simply not well trained enough to do it. In a minority of cases, perhaps they simply can’t be bothered either. Multiply this daily effect by 5, weekly by 5 and monthly by 9 and..well I’m not a maths teacher but I’m sure you get the point.
An education system that overloads its teachers to such an extent means that we as teachers, are highly inefficient and working under prolonged stress. We may proudly boast of being able to multitask but this has come from necessity rather than a highly developed skill that improves our classroom skills. We are too busy most of the time to actually reflect on why we do certain things. Even when the regulatory shackles have come off, the pointless assessment and marking habits developed over years of box ticking will be so deeply ingrained that we will do it unquestioningly despite its complete uselessness for students. If so, the cycle is complete and we have become the automatons, creating a new generation of automatons who still do not the answer to the question
In many ways, I take pride in the poor, incoherent quality of this work. I’m proud of the fact there are barely any facts contained within. It is a mish mash of contradictory opinions that can be easily falsified and presents a variety of straw men that have been randomly attributed to all of us. This article is a metaphor for the state we are in right now. A 21st century where style is overrunning substance. Facts get in the way of post-truth. We are too busy to reflect on why we are so busy in the first place and we are in danger of repeating the same mistakes with a new generation if we don’t find that time. A rant like this is just the start. I would like to learn more about the school I mentioned. Its easy to criticise without ever visiting and acknowledging some of the successes they have clearly had. I’d like to write more about the issues I’ve merely touched upon here. I really want to hear your thoughts on these issues and kickstart a real discussion on these ideas. Thank you for reading! I know it wasn’t easy!