Turning it all around #2: Popularity Equals Greatness

It’s that time, when lists are being published regarding who has opted for what next year. It’s always a matter of curiosity, of course – but backed with a degree of minor anxiety about the calibre of pupils and the wider perceptions caused by greater or lesser numbers of pupils opting for one’s subject.

About a week ago, I had a conversation with a bright Year 10 pupil, along the lines of, “I didn’t expect it to be like this: it was so easy in year 9, we played lots of games and it was fun (the F word again…); this year’s its been hard work…”

My reply was to the effect: would he rather I didn’t teach the material that he needs to obtain a good exam grade/ would he rather I left him at (sub-) Year Nine level work/ how did he think people make progress towards tertiary education/gain expertise in a subject – and why, if it is not capable of being “fun”, did he think people take doctorates in the subject and/or spend their working lives teaching it? At the end of that barrage, the poor lad was forced to agree that he has indeed moved his understanding on a great deal since last September, and to take it on trust that greater depth might indeed foster greater interest.

I have known teaching programmes that deliberately cover the more exciting topics just before options are taken. This strikes me as completely wrong, and another example of the system (by linking high take-up to departmental success) perverting the ethical behaviour of teachers. Some would argue there’s nothing wrong with putting a positive shine on one’s subject; well of course not (within reason) – but the timing strikes me as nothing less than cynical.

Personally, I would rather give my younger pupils teaching that allows them to appreciate the true nature of the subject, and that prepares them to make both the choice for and the transition to higher level work. If they then decide that the subject is not for them, then I would argue that I have done them (and the department) a service. Besides, academic subjects (if not all subjects) are what they are – they are not, in my opinion, there to be cut-and-pasted at whim, just to make a ‘fun’ pupil experience. We need to bring the pupils to the subject, not the other way round.

In the case of this year, my take-up has been relatively small – but then I have been teaching mainly less-able pupils strongly academic work for the past nine months; if they have decided it is not for them, is this a bad thing? And I know that those who have opted for it are the ones who have demonstrated genuine interest in the subject during that time.

Of course, I am delighted when large numbers of pupils do opt for my subjects, but I would rather they made the right choice for them – not the school. I do know, too, that teachers can help pupils discover interest in unexpected places – but that is rather different from playing to the crowd just to secure the right short-term outcome. And if they opt otherwise, we should not automatically conclude the worst about our teaching.

I’m all for extending the reach of my subject – but not by diminishing it in the process; I would rather have fewer, committed students (of whatever ability) than lots of uncommitted ones. We continue to conflate popularity and success; if the wrong pupils take the wrong subjects forward, it’s in nobody’s interest.

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12 thoughts on “Turning it all around #2: Popularity Equals Greatness

  1. Honesty is the best policy, or so I would like to feel. Like you, I have no problem with people putting their best foot forward, but I think sometimes people step over the line. I remember one history teacher (some years ago) poaching some of the brightest students by a concerted campaign of flattery…or so it seemed.

    • I’m not grinding any particular axe here, by the way but… the bit I didn’t put in: those who play the games, butter-up the pupils and don’t necessarily make the academic demands sometimes *do* achieve higher take-up as a result. And in a world that jumps to hasty conclusions, that can be a concern.

      • It either leads to disillusionment and/or an increasingly hard to please young person.

  2. Surely the proof then is the results that are produced in the end. High take up with lower results is no benefit to anyone. Similarly different cohorts will have different strengths. However, it disturbs me that ‘fun’ is in the equation – I really do place the blame on primary schools (I have taught in them for ten years) and EYFS in particular which manufacture fun at the expense of hard work and then wonder why we have poor outcomes later on in life!!

    • Well, I’m very relieved to see you say so. I’ve always been very hesitant to criticise primary schools because they do an essential job – but my impressions have nonetheless been that they are often not doing it very well. It seems to me that a lot of the things we beat ourselves up about in the secondary sector may actually have earlier underpinnings.

      I think there is a pressing need for an honest conversation between the two sectors right now.

  3. …and expecting schools to make a reasoned link between quality of candidate and outcomes is a bit too optimistic. Poor results can only mean one thing – poor teaching, don’t we know?

  4. Additionally – primary schools can not separate themselves from the future consequences for their pupils. I’ve heard so much about secondary teachers coming and telling us how it is done – has that ever happened? It’s in people’s imaginations and again intellectual insecurity. I would be happy to point out the realities, listen to theirs and see where we go. I volunteered in a 14-18 school and most certainly did not like what I saw in the students!! The only reason for certain behaviours to have become so ingrained is because they were not challenged.

    • I think both sectors are guilty of not looking further than when their pupils leave. In secondary, the problem of preparing students for university or employment is real enough, though it gets more difficult as children age and the pathways become more complex and numerous.

      In the case of primary to secondary, I think it is not preparing children for harder and higher level work, getting rid of the ethos of gratuitous play – and making sure those erstwhile K.S. 2 levels were not inflated!

      • Oh trust me I think that the KS1 levels are too!! However, it does start in EYFS. The profile is based on a range of different areas of which literacy and numeracy are only two and these are not weighted accurately. So what happens is that a rough equivalence is given to Year 1 teachers (who I think have the roughest deal of all trying to wean the kids off play) based on the whole profile not just the literacy and numeracy elements. So the charade starts. I think we would all be better off it EYFS is fixed. You know what I would rather they get rid of Reception than have it as the first official year of learning as it undermines the whole process and given what I have heard from EYFS teachers themselves they are not that fussed about literacy and numeracy. It is a con if it’s just child minding – I certainly don’t think they should be paid as teachers if all they are doing is setting up and letting children play. Trust me this goes on and some openly admit to not planning lessons. It’s all about creating a pretty learning profile with pictures and post it notes.

  5. I’m beginning to think that all this is going to be worthy of a ‘home’ of its own soon – there are multiple cans of worms in there that could do with opening… What you have done is to remind me of just how removed I am as a secondary teacher from what is going on with children before they reach me: they are quite little enough at eleven in my view!

    I have mixed feelings about the role of adults in the lives of very small children; my instinct is that they should be at home with their parents. All else being equal, I think that is where they get the most stable emotional and cognitive support. I’m aware how often that probably isn’t the case – but that is a vicious cycle we could do very well to break.

    The son of my Swiss friends did not even start school until he was (I think) six; he’s now a very credible (multi-lingual) student of eighteen, so no academic lag there… But the thing that I really noticed was how hard he appeared to be worked once he got to secondary school, having got all of his play behind him while at home and in kindergarten.

    I think we forget that the key thing at all stages is that we need to be *developing* children, not pandering to what they already are – and by the time they get to me, they need to have the expectation and prior skills to work intellectually HARD. Too many don’t – and I don’t think they ever really recover.

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