Monday, 22 February 2010

Good sense on teaching

I like the tone of this, from the introduction to Inglis, Fred, and Lesley Aers. Key Concepts in Education. London: Sage, 2008, p.4:

Then, if you are lucky, you will see the art of teaching in action - the art because the practice in question is being displayed with force and complexity, the life of the classroom is being directed with an assurance and subtlety intrinsic to art, the shape of the interior life of the lesson is made beautiful by the quiet animation of its participants, the smooth motion of their study from point to point, and all this lovely life advances to its goal, which is to discover the truthfulness for which class and teacher have set themselves to look.

Nobody talks about teaching like that these days. They never did, very much, in the past. But the predominance of what is called in these pages 'technicism', which is to say the supposition that teaching may be made foolproof by devising impersonal techniques and so-called 'skills' to cover all classroom and curricular life, has led to the treatment of all teachers as fools: creatures to be told what to do and never to be left alone to do it.

It isn't working. It'll go away. The aim of this book is to help dispel the inanities of technicism, the terrible tripe talked in the diction of the management of performance. The faith in this book is placed in certain inherent and indestructible attributes of the human mind which, when awoken, repel cant, mock jargon, deride cliché. These cheerfully oppositional forms of action are what one looks to find (ha!) in university departments of education. The key concepts are those which may so be orchestrated that they work on behalf of some of their best qualities - truth and beauty say; knowledge and freedom; equality and mind.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Modern education 1947

From John Betjeman, ‘The Dear Old Village’, 1947

Behind rank elders, shadowing a pool,
And near the Church, behold the Village School,
Its gable rising out of ivy thick
Shows "Eighteen-Sixty" worked in coloured brick.
By nineteen-forty-seven, hurrah! hooray
This institution has outlived its day.
In the bad times of old feudality
The villagers were ruled by masters three-Squire,
parson, schoolmaster. Of these, the last
Knew best the village present and its past.
Now, I am glad to say, the man
is dead,
The children have a motor-bus instead,
in a town eleven miles away
We train them to be "Citizens of To-day."
And many a cultivated hour they pass
In a fine school with walls of vita-glass.
Civics, eurhythmics, economics, Marx,
Plastics, gymnastics-thus they learn to scorn
The old thateh'd
cottages where they were born.

So that would be one of they new secondary moderns.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Over-parenting in school

Report in today’s paper about an American books arguing that happy children are the result not of relentlesssly attentive parenting but of living with parents whose relationship is good. I don’t know about the relationship part but might there be an equivalent in schools?

I.e. perhaps schools can be too caring. I think one of the schools I worked in, or certain departments in it, may have been so and we may have worried more about the kids’ ‘adjustment’ and happiness than about their intellectual development. In my own schooling I think I benefitted from the impersonal relationship we had with most of our teachers. The school then was just an institution we could manage in pragmatic and instrumental ways, and certainly we never felt it was intrusive; it made huge demands on our time but otherwise didn’t interfere with our freedom and autonomy. Your personal life was right outside their concern. One could have a relationship with knowledge and the disciplines that was disinterested and compartmentalised: they gave you the tools and material and left you to it, partly because the teaching was often ineffective but also because that was the way: the stuff was presented, more or less conscientiously, and it was for you to get to work on it. There were tests and assignments, of course, loads of them, but except when one was terrified of a teacher they were just impersonally there: doing what you had to to pass them was often interesting and enjoyable, and despite the load there was usually time to develop one’s own interests.

I'm grateful, too, for a childhood that wasn’t over-protected or over-provided-for at home. It seems to me that, until I went to grammar schools (with homework and Saturday morning school) I played out most of the time, on the magical Moor Fields [see labels down side] or taking a meandering couple of hours exploring our world on the way home from school. My parents weren’t irresponsible but they didn’t worry.

I was lucky in growing up on the rurban fringe of a city, with the best of both worlds available, endlessly stimulating and affording unlimited possibilities for exploration and activity. Schools should provide the intellectual equivalent, through curriculum and resources, with the teachers taking a rather detached responsibility for avoiding harm and ensuring kids enjoy a large zone in which they’re not at the mercy of peer culture.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Parakeets, Capello and Cruddas

10.00 a.m. Not very nice now, grey, damp and a bit chilly. But it was brighter when I got up and by going out before 8 I may have had the best of the day. Since it’s clear I'll never go to a gym again, and running’s not for me (a hip’s beginning to go, though it’s left me alone for months), I've been trying to walk for exercise, i.e. faster than I normally would and with ‘technique’ -- a recent Guardian guide purported to tell you how to do it -- take off from toes, land on heel, roll through the foot, hips level, arms at 45%, max distance earlobes to shoulders. There was a video but I've no idea if I'm doing it right; I need the lady to come and watch me.

Anyway, at least I do more walking and this morning, being Saturday and nice, I bused to Kingston and walked up the other side from Kingston Bridge to Hampton Court. The small birds were being birdish and springish; a parakeet perched on a spray in fine close-up view; rooks cawed, swans swanned; fours were training, first some lads in a big canoe, then some middle-aged men rowing, then some younger men, probably Kingston University students, then some girls ditto. Actually the last two, now I think of it, were eights. Cyclists and runners shared my path, which was fortunately wide and firm; the river’s on the left, wide and active, and across the other side moorings and the occasional boatyard, ugly flats and then, further up, more picturesque houses and a couple of pleasant pubs; then some posh school’s playing fields. On my right a hedge with some trees and beyond it parkland, the estate of Hampton Court. And finally the palace itself, through gilt-tipped railings: first a swanky classical country house with formal garden, then, when you’ve rounded a corner, the Tudor brick original with those chimneys.

With the radio on the phone (via earphones) I listened to the Today programme. Interesting stuff about brain scans establishing communication with a proportion of patients thought to be in a vegetative state -- but now judged to be, rather, ‘locked in’. As they said, poses deep questions about what it is to be human, minded, with intentions etc. Reports too of the chorus of approval for Fabio Capello’s decisive dismissal of the England captain (Capello being the Italian manager of the England football team): I sense a longing for leaders like him, old-fashioned, unshowy, clear about his values, severe, strong on discipline. The nation feels (or so you’d think from the press) like a class that’s had a succession of ineffective young teachers who long for a strict older one. Capello for Prime Minister? Naive dream: he’s not a politician, we know nothing of his ability to negotiate and do deals or compromise or cope with complexity. The football scene is complex but at least it’s a contained zone, in a way that national and world politics and economy aren’t.

From Hampton Court the way back is by train, for which I had a half hour wait so went and had a coffee and croissant and read the New Statesman interview with Jon Cruddas, potential Labour leader. He has some of the Capello qualities -- dignified, honest, intelligent, learned -- but, similarly, how much of a politician is he?

Now for the ironing.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

The grammar school phenomenon

I've written before about the research I'm involved in (’Social Change and English: A Study of Three English Departments 1945-1965’) and have mentioned the study we’ve been doing of the former Walworth Comprehensive School in Southwark. But we’re also looking at two former grammar schools, one, Hackney Downs, in the old London County Council system and the other, Minchenden, in Middlesex. Discussion of these last two, combined with my own experience as a grammar school pupil, have set me thinking afresh about the grammar school phenomenon -- which I find more and more surprising and striking the more I reflect on it.

Think of your average locality: a town, say, or a district of a city. In any such setting -- in fact, in just about any setting -- there are two institutions that seem natural, given, inevitable: families and work (sites and situations of economic activity). Supplementing those, it’s not a big stretch to add education, providing some extra preparation above what the families can offer and freeing parents to go to work. Everyone goes to school and it’s just part of the common experience. So that’s normality, a world in which there’s home, work and, bridging the two, school; children’s fate is to move through the three until they end up in work.

Now, suddenly, there’s this huge intervention in this nice, normal set-up. The local council sets up a separate system of different schools, with fees at first, though nowhere like as high as those of the public schools, and then (after 1945) completely free. And thus a deep and lasting divide is driven through the community as a spectre stalks the streets every morning, lifting from this house and from that one in five of the families’ children and depositing them for the day in a central building, more or less distant, where special and different things are done to them by special and different adults. These latter aren’t locals; they’re drawn from a national pool of graduates from universities all over the country, and they’re licensed to do to the children things that again have been determined by remote national institutions (government, exam boards).

Grammar schools did lots of good for lots of children, including me, no doubt about it. In another perspective, though, it’s horrific. How could people have voted for it with open eyes?

Not all did, of course. In Professor Jane Martin’s inaugural lecture the other day at the Institute of Education I heard about Mary Bridges Adams, a member of the School Board for London (it ran elementary education in London from 1870 to 1904) who advocated a common secondary school for all, free, with a leaving age of 16 -- which we finally got in 1973.