Sunday, 20 April 2008

Bright disadvantaged kids: two perspectives

I've just read a typically insightful article by John Yandell, a colleague at the London Institute of Education (‘Mind the gap: Investigating test literacy and classroom literacy’, English in Education, Vol.42 No.1, 2008). Here I want to note a couple of thoughts it gave rise to rather than discuss the argument (which I find convincing). John represents to us a 14-year-old boy, Billy, of a type familiar to all of us who have taught in comprehensive schools: intelligent, intellectually lively, cheerful and willing and yet seriously inexperienced and unskilled in academic pursuits, and in the favoured forms of written discourse. He’s studying Richard III in an ‘urban classroom’; he enjoys it and makes sense of it, as John demonstrates, at a level far beyond what his written test results reveal.

(‘Urban’ seems a strange qualification for ‘classroom’, as if studying Richard III was different in built-up areas, but of course the expression is really code for a student body of very mixed origins that presents particular challenges to a teacher.)

What strikes me is the radical incompatibility between the two perspectives that a good English teacher (like Billy’s teacher Maeve) is forced to maintain when working with a kid like Billy. In Billy & co. we see potential, signs of life, frequent flashes of perceptive intelligence, brief comments that get the matter just right, willingness to learn. We've no doubt that he has the brains and the attitude to do well. Each of these small manifestations excites us and encourages us to keep on providing the opportunities, suggesting activities, offering stimulating material, promoting dialogue, fostering a climate in which students will feel encouraged to chance their arm in voicing their thoughts; we keep Billy active (or contemplative), engaged, always moving on to new stuff -- and returning to the old stuff he likes – poems, extracts, his own productions -- securing it in his repertoire.

We feel, this is an adolescent who is a going concern, who’s getting an education: his mind is active, he’s thriving, learning, operating on four cylinders, developing, overcoming the disadvantages of where he’s come from (perhaps a poor earlier schooling, perhaps an unsupportive home); he’s doing what’s right for him now, exactly what he should be doing given where he’s at. Other things being equal we’d back him as an educational prospect.

From this perspective we’re delighted by Billy and conscious how substantial are the cognitive gains represented by each apparently small new achievement. Achievement, in fact, is what we’re primarily conscious of; and promise, embryonic resources ready to be developed.

And yet –- the other perspective -- in terms of where he needs to get to, and by comparison with others of his age in privileged schools, Billy still knows so little and can do so little. He’s read few books and has little skill in writing. He’s already 14 and yet it feels as if he’s only just starting. In that perspective Billy’s day-by-day achievements seem a drop in the ocean of what he needs in order to catch up with his educationally more fortunately peers and have their sort of chances in the qualifications stakes. To those in whom this view dominates, banging on about his achievements and potential seems an irresponsible avoidance of the reality of the matter; and a disinclination to impose an urgent forced-march regime looks like a betrayal of Billy's life chances. To which one response may be that education takes the time it takes, and that what such regimes result in can be of dubious value or even harmful.

What does Billy need, ideally? In terms of his own development, some years more of the sort of educational environment that his teacher, Maeve, is giving him; possibly to 18, possibly to 20 or beyond. He and countless others like him in our schools need time and continuity. But in our system the regime in English and the other subjects changes radically at 16 and then again, with university, for those who get there, at 18, in ways I don’t need to spell out. A-level English and undergraduate English are quite unlike English in a good curriculum for 11-16 year olds. With 50% of the population supposed to be going into higher education, it makes me feel that university for many students needs to be more like a continuation of a good comprehensive school, offering an extension of the general education that students need before specialising in a single discipline. (Few of the undergraduates I've taught in linguistics and language studies in two countries have had this preparation; to me they feel unready for the narrowed focus of a traditional university course.)

My other thought is that for all the good research like John Yandell’s that’s going on, no one has yet given us a full description of the longer-term process by which a 14-year-old Billy or his female peer develops into an 18-year-old or 20-year-old with the knowledge, practices and rhetorical expertise to match those of his or her peers who have had a better start. Can it happen? Does it ever? How, by what stages, under what conditions, with what sorts of pressures and freedoms applied, how fast, how smoothly or unevenly? Is progress steady or are there great divides to be crossed? What English teaching and education more generally need is utopian research, research that from a study of what happens now, here and there in exceptional contexts, could provide a vision of a better educational future.

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