When will they ever learn?

A vox-pop interview in a Texas college seemed to indicate a quite deplorable lack of certain kinds of knowledge, such as; ‘Who won the American Civil War? Who is the current Vice President of the US, When (and from whom) did America gain its independence.

I was a tad shaky on Joe Biden and knew the date of Independence, though at the time I wasn’t entirely sure, but then I am British, am English, so some would argue I have more excuse.

I have only recently retired from education. ‘Withdrawn’ would be more accurate, since I gave up because I found myself in an environment I was finding it increasingly difficult to cope with.

I had been a Teaching Assistant in a primary school and became, about a decade ago, a Learning Support Assistant in a secondary (high) school, working particularly with children on the autistic spectrum. Lovely kids, some lovely adults, but a lot of things with which I was not at all happy.

History and English are perhaps my favourite subjects. It did not make me happy that, too often, I would support a child in a History or English lesson and find both the student and myself bored to tears.

There are a number of problems in education.

One major problem is parents. Often they either show too little interest in what their children are doing, or how they are getting on, and too often they show the wrong kind of interest, defending behaviours in their children which are all but indefensible. Discipline has become a serious problem for many teachers, whilst what was available was too often inappropriately or inadequately used. It was far too common to spend time in a classroom where the teacher made repeated threats of discipline only to fail to carry them through. And some of this has to be down to lack of sufficient support and encouragement from managers.

Another major problem is the attitude of many towards teachers, often including management and government. Few professions can have faced the undermining that has been faced by the teaching profession. A good teacher is arguably the most valuable resource in society, because without good teachers you do not have good education and without good education you do not have appropriately qualified nurses, doctors, teachers, law enforcement officers, parents, administrators, representatives… anything. We all need to learn and we all need to learn well. Without good teachers we have nothing. And one of the main reasons some teachers are ‘less good’ today is the continuous pressure to reach certain targets.

Targets, and much in education, are based on some very dubious suppositions. The first, and oldest, is that children can all access education and learn at the same age, and that they can be expected to progress at the same rate. It is not common practice to keep a child back in primary school because they are not yet ready to progress into secondary school, and it is not common practice to keep back children during the intervening years because, again, they have not reached the same levels of attainment as most of their peers.

Instead, it is common to set attainment tests of one form or another which are supposed to demonstrate that a child in one year is ready to progress to the next, but which in fact demonstrate only teachers’ ability to ‘teach to the test’ or the school’s ability to fudge the results. Nobody actually wins, but the tests – ‘taught to’ or fudged – provide statistics by which – say the powers that be – schools can be judged.

We should not assume that every five year old is equally able to progress simply because the calendar says ‘September’. Nor should we assume that every child at a given age is equally capable, equally attentive, equally understanding and is not in any way impaired in learning ability by factors such as illness, home-life or by one of the alphabet of conditions such as ASD, ADHD and the rest.

In the UK it is incumbent upon teachers to provide struggling students with ‘differentiated learning materials’, materials, that is, that are designed to help those who have a lower level of understanding or ability. In a decade or so I could count the number of differentiated materials seen on the fingers of one hand. Teachers, again, often have not time to produce or find them.

Progressing, then, we come to ‘new technology’. A senior idiot in UK education, whose name I have long forgotten, asserted not too long ago that ‘the value of computers in learning and teaching has not yet been proven.’ This is eyewash. Were computers somehow completely distinct from other technologies there might be arguments, but the computer encompasses a vast number of resources which have been part of education since before computers existed. My own primary and secondary school education, which ended half a century ago, was informed by the school piano, by slide-shows, reel to reel tape recordings and movies shown on Super 8. The equivalent, in terms of music, audio-visual presentation, film and more, is far more accessible via the computer.

The computer also enables interaction, allows the student to do something and obtain a result, can facilitate research and open an unbelievably wide world to young eyes. When it is used effectively.

One of the biggest surprises to me, apart from the relatively poor level of actual literacy among some teachers, was the poor level of computer literacy. Far, far too often the digital whiteboard had become merely an alternative chalkboard, with poorly-assembled PowerPoints the principal go-to as an alternative. Often the only significant difference between what was on the digital whiteboard and what was on the wipe-clean whiteboard alongside upon which teachers scribbled, was that the text in the PowerPoint was not hand-written.

Technological innovations seemed to exist, often, only in order to be disparaged. “Nah, that won’t work,” being almost a mantra. Yet I have seen technology used to make a dramatic difference. I have used it to make a difference.

Four rows of tables in a very large primary art classroom, each table draped in newspaper and a protective cloth, 25 to 30 children with boards and a piece of clay in front of them. First they sat to watch a short presentation, still images and video clips, explaining every step of the task – making any one of 3 different kinds of pot – that was before them. During the presentation the teacher explains the task and answers questions. After the presentation the kids get down to it, only there are now five screens around the room on which the presentation is cycling over and over. Now, although they can ask, they don’t need to. The presentation reminds and guides them. Now, although they can ask, they ask each other, collaborate with each other.

The results were everything we could have hoped for, from the thumb pots of the KS 1 children through to the slab pots of the KS 3, and the lesson one of the quietest and most productive I have known.

Oh yes, and at the end of each presentation the kids applauded.

To the last bit, for now. ‘Incidental learning’.

How is it that before I reached college age I knew more about the American Civil War than many US college-age kids appear to know today?

First, the world in which I lived almost half a century ago was very different from the present. In the UK we had – if I recall – just two television channels, and I never heard of anyone -at that time – who had more than one television set. One consequence of the latter is the fact that at times you would watch something just for the sake of watching it, for taking a break from whatever else you were doing, so you encountered things that were not necessarily of your first order of interest. Another consequence was that you would see and hear things which were of very little direct interest simply because someone else in your house was watching it. When my mother watched a soap, or watched Wimbledon fortnight on TV, and when she watched the news, most often I would at least half-watch it too.

I did not have the alternative, especially on an average rainy day, of going out or, more particularly, going to my own room to play on a computer, a games console or watch my own TV.

I believe I absorbed certain things as a result, without ever setting out to do so.

In that different world, too, things were changing, some coming to an end. The steam trains that were a commonality would give way to the new, less-exciting electric and diesel trains, the sounds would change, the pits, the textile mills and the steelworks which had been the nation’s industrial heritage would begin to fade into oblivion. The countryside would change, as farming changed and as towns and cities expanded greyly along the railroad track.

What was ‘now’ was becoming what was nostalgic. Out of that ‘now’ came movies, literature, ways of being and seeing that would change. If I watch a 1950s British movie today I see things with which I was once familiar. If you can persuade a modern teenager to watch the same – since he naturally eschews anything in black and white – he would see only things which were alien and irrelevant.

We can be exposed, always, to things which pre-date ourselves, as I was. There were some great British movies set in mills, factories and mines, and out of them grew literature that was still recent enough to be relevant. To this day I remember a poem called ‘Factory Windows Are Always Broken’ (by Vachel Lindsay) and the lyrics of “Don’t Go Down In the Mine, Dad” (seen as a series of picture post-cards in my granny’s collection). Mining disasters still happened, and none of us who were around will ever forget the disaster of Aberfan when a rain-soaked slag heap buried a school in Wales.

Now the coal mines, the steel mills and the factories are largely gone, yet it is not unusual for a student to be faced with the analysis of a poem which was a product of that age. Many will not be able to relate parts of that poem to anything in their experience, have not absorbed anything much that will be of help to their understanding.

Fifty years ago, too, I belonged to a nation to which war was still freshly remembered. Not a modern war, poorly explained and poorly understood, to which soldiers are sent and return without receiving, often, the blessing of their countrymen. My grandfathers both remembered the Great War (WW1) and my parents generation had survived WW2. One consequence was a broad swathe of material that was war related, from documentaries shown in the evening and at weekends to movies whose poor sound and visual effects we had not yet learned to notice, and to popular boys comics and illustrated magazines. We thought our country had done well and had done right and we found pride and meaning in it. That no doubt informed my attitudes toward the American Civil War, to which I was probably introduced by the movie, and subsequently the book, ‘The Red Badge of Courage’.

I would argue that children are not, now, subject to the same kind of incidental, passive learning that children of my generation experienced. In effect they have too much choice, and too much of that choice is deleterious to the right kind of development. If they don’t want to watch the news, don’t want to keep abreast of what is happening, they can go play on their console, watch any one of hundreds of channels on their own TVs or delve into the least useful of ‘interests’ on their computers. They watch nonentities achieve fame by doing nothing that any normal, balanced person would want to do, absorb values that are all to do with price and nothing to do with worth.

They are, as I have repeatedly said, like kids deposited in a huge supermarket and told to feed themselves. The confectionery, candy counter contains everything they like and want, not knowing what they need, and few will progress beyond it.





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