Posts Tagged ‘education’

On learning to read

December 31, 2021

The eldest of our grandchildren is now at school, and learning to read. Given that reading is such an important part of my life, and always has been, I find it strange that I can recall very little about how I actually learned to read. I remember nothing at all from before I went to school as a rising five; ours was a poor household and there was no money for books. However, when in Class 1 Miss Marvell began the process of teaching us, I do recall that it seemed quite straightforward to me, so I must have been ready or prepared in some way for it.

The letters of the alphabet were on charts high up on the classroom walls, and I remember our having to chant the sounds aloud, in unison. Shortly after this came a series of flashcards with ‘sentences’ on them, which again we were required to chant; I remember thinking they were daft at the time. The one that has stuck in my mind for sixty-odd years said, “Mother, mother, see Kitty!” and I can remember thinking, “Who on earth would speak like that?”

Eventually there were readers – the Janet and John series, I think, that we shared one between two, and took in turns to read a sentence aloud. Again I recall thinking that I wanted to read a lot more than one sentence because this new skill was so exciting and I could do it, and also feeling impatient with those who couldn’t master the words, or stumbled over them. At the same time as acquiring this new skill, we were also learning how to write, beginning with individual miniature blackboards (as chalkboards were then called) and graduating to pencil and paper as soon as our fine motor skills were good enough. Here I remember being cross about having to use the pencil and paper, because I quite liked the business with the chalk…

Yet I was never conscious that I was learning to read and write; I hoovered it all up, along with the excitement and the possibilities it opened up. I have no recollection of taking readers home from school and practising with my parents; I don’t think such things happened in those days – school was school, home was home, and quite honestly, my parents were too busy running a home and family.

When I think about it now, I realise that the ability to master and operate with text was crucial to schooling in those days, for everything came from printed textbooks, with a very few black and white line illustrations. In other words, if you couldn’t read, you were seriously stuck. I remember that in the second class, those of us who could read competently were paired up with those who needed practice, to help them and hear them read. Again, uncharitably, I found this tedious, as at the age of going on six I couldn’t see how anyone couldn’t understand those letters and words…

Still no books at home. I must have been coming up to seven when my mother realised that she could sign me up to the children’s section of Stamford Public Library, and I can truly say that from that moment I never looked back. I read anything and everything, not quite indiscriminately, but pretty promiscuously. I can remember particularly the Young Traveller series, which probably sparked off that bug – two children in a nice, white middle-class family who got taken off to lots of interesting countries and saw the sights, tried the food and learned about habits and customs: I wanted to be able to do that. I exhausted the possibilities of the children’s library by the age of twelve, at which point my mother went and soft-talked them into allowing me access to the ‘grownups’ library several years early…

There were also the small classroom libraries at school: when you had successfully completed a task, it was often easiest for the teacher to send you off to get a book to read until everyone else had finished, and the class could move on to the next thing together. Again, I hoovered up everything, and can remember being particularly interested in Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia, which I devoured large chunks of.

Finally, I also began to acquire some books of my own: my parents realised how much reading meant to me. I was thrilled when they bought me Winnie the Pooh, and overjoyed when Christmas and birthdays brought book tokens, with which I bought my first copy of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and also The Wind in the Willows. That last one I still have, a treasured item in my now vast library. And I know that there’s a certain snobbishness or superiority in saying this, but I cannot understand people who can, but do not read, and I have never understood how it’s possible to have a home without books…

What comes out of all this is my realisation of the incredibly liberating effect of education. I’m always very moved when I read about the lengths that some children in the Third World go to, in order to be able to get to school, and I appreciate my father’s determination that I should get a good education – he had four winters of school, 1922-26 and that was it…

50 years on…

December 24, 2021

For some reason, it came into my head that 2022 will mark half a century (!) since I did my A levels and left school. The sense of of the relentless passage of time was rather overwhelming, and I turned to reflecting on my world of so long ago. A Catholic boarding school; no sense of health and safety or safeguarding as we know them nowadays. From the naivety of the priests who ran it, a great sense of freedom in those heady days of the late sixties and early seventies. Much discovery of music, sexuality, astonishing films on TV… laying the foundations for my student days…

And, from the good teachers there, the inspirational ones, the push to be curious, explore the world of knowledge, art and literature. An amazing French teacher, years ahead of his time, who actually concentrated on getting us to speak the language, an English teacher who allowed and encouraged us to read anything and everything, a classics teacher who gave me a lifelong love of Latin and things and places Roman. No chance of becoming a scientist: no-one to teach Maths or sciences beyond O level. Was I bothered? Only much later on did I realise what roads had never been open to me, and by then any regret was pointless, futile: I was already me.

What remains today is the abiding feeling that learning is a lifelong activity, and that humans have a developed brain and a sense of reasoning for a deliberate purpose; yes, the priests’ message was laced with religious arguments, but for me the precepts are good in a secular world too. Since I left school all those years ago, at various points in my life I have chosen to go and learn German, Italian, Spanish, Yoga, and I have taught myself the art of bread-making and learned a lot about IT. From the relatively narrow field of my A level studies, my reading has broadened out in many directions…

Perhaps such attitudes meant that it was inevitable I would become a teacher myself… I don’t know. But I do hope I passed on some of that curiosity to those I taught.

I’m conscious of how much easier life generally, and schooling in particular, was in those long-ago days. You learned what you needed to learn for the exams, practised writing essays and sat the exams. No coursework, no continuous assessment, no relentless data-based pressure to make progress, and thereby enhance the school’s results and marketability. I have no memories of stress; perhaps I was lucky – I worked out how to be organised and get things done, and those habits have stood me in good stead.

Regrets? As I’ve aged, I’ve been aware of having missed out on sport and music. Back then, if you were keen and already capable, then games teachers were interested in you and encouraged you; if, like me, you knew nothing and couldn’t play, they were completely uninterested in helping or teaching you; you were bored, ignored, shivering and freezing on the edge of the field, and your lifetime loathing of sport grew early and long. With similar friends, I learned the joys of walking and rambling; that’s it for my physical activity. Music was the same: I now wish I could play an instrument, but there was never the opportunity. My voice broke early, so I was forbidden to sing lest I put others off. Just in case anyone is envious of the simplicity and freedom of those long-gone schooldays, there were those downsides, too.

I liked school. My father, who had only four winters’ worth of Polish rural schooling to his credit, encouraged me in my learning journey and I’ve never forgotten that. Education was the gateway to the world and to possibilities.

On being tested (not for COVID!)

June 2, 2020

Something brought to my mind the horrifying realisation that it’s half a century this month since I did my O-Levels, which were the end-of school examinations at age 16 in England way back then. This has had me reflecting on the experience of being tested, which seems to happen a great deal more frequently than in my younger days…

I took the 11+ shortly before my tenth birthday (for some unknown reason, Lincolnshire County Council allowed you a go at age 10 if your school wanted you to, as well as the usual attempt at 11. I knew that it was an important test, on which my future education possibilities depended, and wanted to pass; the headmaster of our primary school coached a small group of us and I was successful. I have no recollection of the experience being stressful, and found the test itself quite straightforward and rather strange in places – I recall a (presumably mathematical) question about an election in which each of the candidates received exactly the same number of votes (2 each).

I was at a small Catholic boarding school when O-Levels came around. For some of the subjects I was aware we were following some kind of course; there were set books to study in English, RE and Latin, for instance, and specific topics to cover in History and Geography. None of the work felt particularly onerous, and I had some idea of the kind of questions I might meet. There was a French oral with an external examiner which required me to read a passage aloud and then converse with him about whatever came up…

I contrast my experience with that of students nowadays, including many of those whom I taught in a career of nearly thirty years: I felt very little pressure or stress, either from myself or my teachers. I have been fortunate in that I evolved a system for organising revision which stood me in good stead through all the stages of my education: no revising after 9pm, and no last-minute panic in the morning, so avoid conversations with peers about the upcoming exam. Triage of material: this stuff I know and understand pretty well, this stuff here needs a more careful look over, this other stuff I really do need to work on…

What was different then? Why did I feel more stressed about whether I’d get through three hours of exam without needing a pee, than about the questions on the paper? You were being assessed on what you knew and understood, and the examination wasn’t competitive, in the sense that there would only be a certain percentage of each grade awarded. There was also a trust in the markers and marking, which increasingly disappeared during my teaching career with the increase in the number of papers and exams, and the ever more complicated descriptors and mark schemes. These, along with markers being increasingly badly paid, led to people almost but not quite being dragged in off the street to do the work. I don’t think university places depended so much on grades at age 16, whereas everything seems to be taken into account nowadays. On the other hand, for many universities, O-Level Latin was a must for matriculation…

I felt supported by my parents, and my teachers, whose jobs and future prospects did not depend on how well we managed to do in our exams: they did their job, we did our work and it all came out in the wash.

A-Levels were a similar performance, and university applications and interviews – yes, they were important and pretty much de rigueur – a very gentlemanly business. The professor of French and I chatted and discussed whatever, until at a certain moment he said, “Bien, continuons en français!” (which we did) – I hadn’t expected that, but it was fine.

University exams were more stressful, because I developed hay-fever, which plagues me to this day, even as I write, and because they were in enormous exam halls with vast numbers of invigilators, some of whom thought it was OK to chat in the corners of the exam rooms… I loved my MA exam, because it was my first and only experience of a takeaway exam: we trooped in to collect the paper from the office at a set time and were instructed to return our scripts a fortnight later. And the viva for my MPhil thesis was a very civilised affair over a good lunch at the home of an academic, with two examiners, a hard man and a soft man. A serious grilling, though.

My most stressful experience of being tested came in a practical field: learning to drive. I passed only at the third attempt, finding the whole ordeal much more gruelling than most of my peers. I’m sure this was right, given that letting someone loose on the road in ton of metal that can move at up to 100mph or so is a very serious business. I’m still grateful to the friend and neighbour who insisted on my driving to the Lake District and back in her tiny Fiat 500 the day before my successful test, building up my confidence enormously and convincing me that I could be a driver.

I’ve read about countries where there are no examinations; I’ve read about countries where things are much more competitive and stressful. As a teacher, I experienced and administered 100% continuously-assessed coursework, which produced comparable results to examinations, but without the pressure and stress on students. So what is it all in aid of? How many ways can you weigh a pig? To a large extent, I think we’re victims of the fact that there have always been examinations, and as a society we have failed to think seriously enough about their purpose or necessity. Also, because data collection and analysis is now so easy and a money-making business in itself, the end justifies the means, and we are persuaded to believe that it’s fairer, more scientific, more accurate and a whole lot of other subjective things.

I have had to support students through the stress of their own expectations and their parents’ expectations of themselves. Some suffered greatly, and unnecessarily; sometimes they gave up. Some people can function effectively under pressure in examinations, some cannot; this does not mean they are incapable.

I’m no expert, but I have experience, personal and professional. I can not see any point in exams at age 16, since we expect students to remain in education until 18. Perhaps there is a need for some kind of certification of competences at a certain level in a few areas such as language, maths and IT at the end of schooling. Unless we plan to limit the numbers moving on to higher education, then what’s needed is an assessment of whether someone is capable of accessing and potentially succeeding at the next stage: this doesn’t have to be by examination…

Finally, I remind myself that examinations are now a vast industry: writing and rewriting syllabi, writing and publishing textbooks, producing exam papers and marking them, analysing all the data, providing training courses… the money recycling goes on ad infinitum. And who is it all serving?

On the crisis in English schools

May 4, 2019

Every Easter, England’s teaching unions hold their conferences, and alarming stories and statistics emerge. This year once again, it was the numbers of teachers being bullied by management, suffering stress, enduring long working hours, planning to leave the profession quite soon, and large numbers of pupils ‘off-rolled’ by secondary schools. What has gone wrong? Here are some thoughts, not in any particular order…

Increasingly, schools are run by managers, often with little or no experience of the classroom. Having zero experience of your particular field may be an advantage in other areas of the economy, but it’s bad in terms of running schools. Furthermore, identikit ‘training’ of would-be headteachers standardises both bad and good practice and undervalues particular individual strengths, I think.

In a sense, the teaching profession has been de-skilled; it’s certainly not as well-trained as it used to be. When I trained, all teachers were trained in university-level institutions, receiving a serious grounding in child development and child psychology as well as specific training in how to teach their particular subject. Now, unless you were particularly interested, that study of development and psychology was often dry as dust and dull as ditch-water, but I believe it was also vitally necessary and vitally important to being a successful teacher; it was only as my career developed that I realised just how I was unconsciously using all that knowledge and understanding I had acquired.

Teacher training is very different now: ‘school-centred’ was deemed to be much better, and it gave schools access to the money! Now, precious little of that vital general training seems to take place: there’s plenty of practice and experience in ‘delivering’ a subject curriculum, but divorced from understanding the minds of the little pitchers into which it’s being poured. I speak with experience here, for I was involved in setting up the initial teacher training scheme in my school. In those days students had to experience teaching in least a couple of different schools and I was often horrified at the poor deal some of my final placement students had received in their first training school: it was clear that a school had decided to have lots of students because they brought in lots of money, but had offered them very little support and training. I’m not at all convinced the situation has improved. What’s clear is that it’s uneven across the country, across different academy chains: there’s no guaranteed, standardised training… and if the teachers who are supposed to be mentoring the students are stressed and overworked, the temptation to cut corners must be great.

The end result of this is both teachers lacking a complete training, as well as teachers trained to teach by numbers and deliver a subject, in other words de-skilled and disadvantaged compared with earlier generations of teachers, not grounded in a sense of their own personal skills, strengths, aptitude and above all, sense of professionalism: this last has been consistently weakened and attacked by successive governments and generations of managerial headteachers. And so we get a teacher writing the other day about how it’s necessary to have standardised national testing because otherwise teachers can’t know how their students are doing because teacher assessment is all subjective…

Information technology has a bigger part in the current chaos than many people realise. Because data collection and analysis is now possible, easy and a source of profit for companies that market software, it will be done: it’s unavoidable, it’s the norm and the clock will not be turned back. Whether data-tracking of students in such minute detail is necessary or desirable is not really the question any more. And so, the workload issues it generates for teachers cannot be made to go away. When I started teaching, none of that was possible, and I don’t really think my students suffered because of that lack.

It’s also the political – as opposed to the educational – use that’s made of all this number-crunching: it now means that schools can be forced to compete with each other, that teachers can be deemed to be ‘failing’ if their results or ‘progress indicators’ do not come up to certain norms. In other works, data has become a big stick to beat up both students and teachers. Ever since the dreadful Kenneth Baker in the 1980s, every education minister has had to prove her or himself in their rise to greater things by playing with the train-set that is education; the fact that many of them had never experienced a state school education is of course totally irrelevant…

There’s another thing: the great divide between state education and the private system (which all taxpayers subsidise through its charitable status). At one level it’s a sideline, but it’s a socially divisive one that this divided country could and should do without. And this is where we come on to what can be done to change things. Other countries do it quite differently, and their school students do not seem to be total numpties compared with all our Einsteins: the obvious and most interesting example is Finland, and plenty of information about their radically different system is available out there so I don’t need to duplicate it here. Suffice it to say it’s based on local schooling and a thoroughly professional and professionally-trained teaching corps.

If we had a system of students all going to their local school – primary or secondary – then all schools would need to be brought up to the same level of staffing and resourcing. And there would be no need for the endless, polluting school runs where streets are jammed by the diesel tractors of parents who deliver their children to what they think is the best or right school for their child…

It does all come down to money in the end: how much is a child’s future worth? How much do we want to invest in the future of our country? And, sadly, my impression of England is that we want education, as we want so many other things, on the cheap…

Henry Adams: The Education of Henry Adams

September 25, 2017

This was a Librivox recording that I listened to as I travelled on holiday recently. Someone once suggested it as worth a read; I’m not really sure, actually.

The Adams family, of Boston, was clearly a long and distinguished line which produced presidents and diplomats; the Henry of this autobiography was born in 1838, and lived into the early twentieth century; he recounts his life from the perspective of learning and education, in terms of what he did and did not learn in various places and from various experiences, and the pursuit of education was a lifelong quest with him. He travelled widely in Europe, though not, it seems, in his own country, and during the American Civil War his father was US ambassador in London and Henry was his secretary.

The book was tiresome in its detail and endless sequence of names, details no doubt much more relevant and interesting a hundred years ago, and in the USA, and the evenness of its tone became dull eventually, allowing the impression to grow of someone born with a golden spoon in his mouth, able to live a life of privilege, without ever really needing to take work seriously.

What kept me reading? I was certainly minded to give up after a while, but Adams’ reflections on how one learnt and how one didn’t learn I found interesting, and they turned me to reflecting on my own experiences of education through my life. He raised the well-worn trope of the relative pointlessness of what school, college and formal education offers one – though I still tend to disagree with this argument. I suppose, in the end, as someone getting on in years myself, I was hoping for some interesting reflections from Henry Adams’ own later years, but to my great disappointment, these he skated over alarmingly rapidly and cursorily, so I might as well have given up…

The most interesting section of the book for me, in the end, was that dealing with the Civil War because Adams was in London with his father dealing with diplomatic issues and the British Government, and I had no idea of the crassness, or the ignorance, or the self-serving nature of the British politicians and their behaviour during those years… although now, I do ask myself – why are you so surprised?

And I am grateful – slightly – to Adams for calling forth some serious reflections on my own life and education, which I think I may write about here at some point in the future. And the Librivox recording was a very good quality one.

Ha-Joon Chang: 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism

September 12, 2013

This Korean economist is increasingly in the public prints with his analysis of events, and his book was well worth the read. Yes, it’s a bit rushed, even breathless at times, but it’s neatly structured (most of the time) and the arguments develop clearly; I found his line convincing.

He’s unapologetically a capitalist, so there are no revolutionary suggestions or manifestos here. What he does is demolish, brick by brick, the arguments in favour of free markets that have taken over the world and done so much damage over the last thirty years or so. He adopts an almost catechetical approach: there is the ‘what they tell you’, followed by the ‘what they don’t tell you’, and then detailed analysis and evidence to back up his position.

What is most astonishing is how many pups we have been sold, how many times we have been conned and lied to over the past generation, how much we have had the mantra ‘there is no alternative’ dinned into us by the free market hegemons. Quite honestly, I never felt that the free market ‘worked’ (in favour of most people), but to see it pulled to pieces by a respected economist is an awakening. Nor am I particularly in favour of his approach which would take us back to the ‘acceptable face of capitalism’; I dream of someone finally putting together a twenty-first century Marx-style analysis that might convince enough people that things can be done completely differently…

For me, the two most enlightening ‘things’ of his 23 were the chapters on Africa and education. For most of my life Africa has been regarded and discussed as an almost irretrievable basket-case, and we are shown that this is both untrue and far from inevitable. Equally, the current explosion of higher education in Britain, and the West generally, is exposed for the sham that it is in a lot of cases: education in specific fields does not lead to better jobs, achievement or wealth, but education (small ‘e’) as an old-fashioned liberal idea is one of the cornerstones of a civilised society. Would that Mr Arrogant (aka Gove) would read that chapter.

So, some serious yet accessible analysis here: a much-needed breath of fresh air about our world, that will be ignored by those in power… no change there, then.

%d bloggers like this: