Maybe the twain could meet…

Last week’s lesson observation fortunately went well, but as so often, the greatest insight was unexpected. After the observer had departed, the Year 9 class, who had put themselves instinctively on their best behaviour (there are still some one can rely on) relaxed somewhat. They had done 45 minutes of formal study of the possibilities for widening wealth distribution in India. They had worked hard and asked pertinent questions, and had told the observer that they found the subject interesting.

But towards the end of the lesson, many expressed exhaustion at the effort required to sustain their concentration for “so long”. For my part, I had been thinking that it was just what I would expect a normal, undisrupted lesson to be like, pretty much like how every lesson used to be when I was at school.

These are children who can expect a crop of top exam grades in a few years time – and yet quite innocently, they confessed that sustaining concentration for three-quarters of an hour was an exceptional demand on them. Yet again I was momentarily transfixed by the starkness of the contrast between what I consider to be a normal teacherly expectation and the starting-point of even able children. It occurred to me that summed up in that simple exchange lay the entirety of the conflict of expectation I quite often experience with my classes.

The experience cast new light on the complaints, later in the week, of another class, that the assessment I had set them was “so difficult” (it wasn’t) – as though that was an unreasonable thing to do. Somewhere, we have failed to transmit suitable expectations to these children – and to prepare them to be able to meet them.

I’ve been asked several times recently what I think of the protests over the testing regime. I’m in two minds. I can remember, even in primary school, doing sustained reading tests, and a series of others, one of which we were dimly aware was the Eleven Plus; I don’t think we felt greatly stressed by such things- it was just what the teacher gave us. And while the yearly grammar school exam regime was distinctly draconian compared with anything I witness now, and we hated it, we coped.

I have few issues with testing as such, even the proposed base line tests, as I think teachers do need to know who and what they are dealing with: how else can they devise suitable strategies or assess successful learning? On the other hand, the stress that testing causes may well be unhelpful, and I also have deep reservations about the way in which modern education in the U.K. has turned into factory-farming. I am increasingly convinced that the narrowness of the regime and the degree of compulsion backing it is a major cause of the indifference and indolence amongst young people that I referred to in my previous post. I worry that a great deal of the wider educational experience and benefit has been lost, to our collective impoverishment.

The balance between rigorous standards and a broad education is being presented as an irresolvable dichotomy. I don’t think it need be so, and a lot of it comes down not to the children at all, but to those who frame education. For all that I propound a rich, wide and intrinsic purpose for education, I don’t think that this needs to be advanced by unstructured classroom ‘play’. Teachers should model high-level intelligent thought and transmit the message that a serious but broad mind is a desirable asset, that is as personally rewarding as it is practically useful. The achievement of such a state demands high levels of concentration and thought, which children need to be shown and expected to work for. They need to be given a serious-minded programme (including due testing) that equips them for this. Unstructured ‘fun’ in the classroom clearly sets up an entirely different, and in my mind inferior, expectation which serves children increasingly badly as they get older.

The issue of stress is, I think, vicarious. My impression is that most is not coming from the children, but their parents and teachers. Undoubtedly this transmits to the children too: why wouldn’t it if the significant adults in their lives are constantly trumping up the stakes and exhibiting serious signs of anxiety themselves? The fact that these adults increasingly believe that education is a zero-sum game (which is, after all what they have been told) is where the stress comes from. With base-line tests, helicopter parents will be anxious that their little dears do not besmirch the upbringing they have thus far been given, or fail to exhibit the early signs of genius; the SATS of course are a public trumpeting of the success or otherwise of both the parents and the schools upon which multiple fortunes hang.

The problem is neither formal teaching and testing nor the breadth of the curriculum, which need not conflict at all – but the stakes we are being made to play for. I suspect that if we were just to shut up about all this, children would pass more smoothly and perhaps more successfully through a balanced regime of testing-within-learning without all the angst that is supposedly being created along the way.

And if we were also to shut up about education needing to be both ‘fun’ and economically relevant, if we allowed teachers the autonomy to model their own good practice and to make enlightened decisions about what to teach, we could restore the balance between the demands of formal study and the intrinsic value that allows it to remain interesting to children, in a way that could indeed resolve a multitude of problems.

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