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‘Tis the season for ‘examination-candidate bashing’!

As we approach examination season once more, yet again, as every year,  the media and the lay person conspire to contrast – negatively – the standards of education of a bygone era with those today.  I would argue that it is of no value to do so and indeed that doing so serves no useful nor, most importantly,  accurate purpose!

This is not the defensive rant of an examination teacher, although I have been that: indeed I have even held the accepted view regularly ‘yelled’ from the tabloid tops. Rather, I hope that experience and – stopping to think – (oops, is that allowed?)  make this the post of common sense.

I agree that there are certain standards which do not compare well with those of the past, prominent examples being spelling and basic grammar, as well as the ability to communicate effectively and accurately in writing.

But let’s look at the facts for a moment:

Once upon a time:

  • Not everyone went to school
  • Few people remained in school to examination level and many fewer to A’ and degree levels
  • Fewer subjects were studied, which meant more time was devoted to each subject (I had English lessons 6  times a week at what is now known as KS3, for instance, yet in my current school both GCSE Language and Literature are taught in 2.5 lessons a week.)
  • Taking each subject, and I’ll stick with English if I may, within this reduced time provision, far more needs to be covered than was ever the case in the past.  It is not enough to consider reading and writing, but a student needs to be familiar with a wider range of forms e.g. leaflets, blogs, advertisements, newspaper articles, literature in its various forms: poetry, plays, novels – both modern and of the canon.  Is it any wonder they are unable to write a confident and accurate letter? – a task we repeated on a very regular basis and they may have the opportunity to do only once or twice during their GCSE years.  They also need to be able to write about the way language is used to create meaning and to target audiences at a much more sophisticated level than was the case in the past, when our focus was on precis and comprehension.
  • As mentioned above, far more subjects are now included within the curriculum – how then is it possible to study any one area in the depth which would allow an adequate contrast with the education of the past? It is like comparing like with completely unlike and to what end?  Young people do not spell as well as they used to (those who had the opportunity – usually those fortunate enough to be educated privately or in the grammar system.)  How could they given the current breadth of curriculum requirements? However, they CAN multi-task in a way that we never could in the past: they can create effective, often inspirational materials, using a variety of ICT/ multi-media skills to target a range of audiences and they can explain how they have achieved these things. They can create websites, films,documentaries, podcasts and  manage their social lives, alomgside their studies via Twitter and Facebook!  They can manage projects, work in teams and meet long-term deadlines.

I believe it is far too easy for people of a certain age to, thoughtlessly and carelessly, mentally list what they could do at a certain age and then deride the current education system when our young people are unable to do the same.

Okay so you want them to be able to spell; what then would you remove from the curriculum to enable this to happen? Are these critics parents?  How much time do they spend at home, helping their children consolidate  what they have been taught in school?  as so often was a role played by parents in the past. Indeed many new elements of the curriculum have arisen as a direct consequence of an abdication of parental responsibility – where else did Citizenship and PCSHEE come from?

However, that is all a whole other discussion and I cannot claim to be a saint in that respect!  My final point is let’s prioritise, as a society, what skills from the past are still of value and decide what can go from our over-crowded curriculum to enable us to improve these areas.

In the meantime, let us concentrate on reversing the natural instinct to contrast negatively so that we list instead the skills that children HAVE and we, of a certain generation, have not, rather than ‘knocking’ them during this annual ‘examination-candidate bashing’ season!  Let’s face it – who is better prepared for a world that is very different from that of our bygone age?

Risk-taking is an essential part of development…

I have tussled with my views on eSafety since well before it was ever labelled thus! With an almost Victorian upbringing (but not age!) and no access to television nor computers, throughout my formative years, the influence of my ‘nurture’ has instinctively been to ‘lock things down’ for children, in order to keep them safe and protect them from the undesirable. It has taken me years to understand – largely through experience, research and a bit more independence of thought, that locking everything down simply won’t do.  Indeed I would argue that we place children in more danger by doing so.

Without trying to pretend that I am more knowledgeable than I am, there are some fundamental basics to learning that I think we all understand. Let’s take the development of speech as an example:

1. We learn through imitation; that is why I speak with the accent I have.

2. We learn through making mistakes and having those pointed out to us; that is why some people speak with grammatical accuracy and some do not. During the development of our speech, it is natural to make grammatical errors; such is the complex nature of speaking English that subject agreement is not always logical. Where these ‘errors’ are pointed out, speech is improved. Where it is not, ‘bad practice’ becomes embedded.

3. We learn through experimentation and risk-taking. By pushing the boundaries in our use of vocabulary and in what we read and hear, we learn what is possible and more about ‘what is out there’, extending our knowledge and understanding as we do so.

Okay, you’ve guessed where I am going with this? – over-simplified though it might be:

1. Imitation: I have less of a connection to make with this one, save to say that peer-pressure is involved – ‘My friend is on Facebook, so too must I be’ and of course, this inevitably leads to the making of mistakes.

2. Mistakes: it is natural, and within reason – desirable, for young people to make mistakes – it is a fundamental part of growing up and development. With the way in which eSafety ‘rules’ are moving in this country (as with Health and Safety before it!) we are stifling a key element of our children’s progress. We complain that they are passive and unimaginative, but we do not allow them to explore or to try things out. (Outside of eSafety, this has manifested itself in such developments as children not being allowed to play outdoors, teachers not being allowed to touch their pupils and the reduction in school trips.)

3. Experimentation and risk-taking: ‘Risk-taking’ is a bit of an educational buzz word at the moment. China does it and we don’t apparently. (Yes, I know I’m over-fond of simplification!) It has even been said that it is becoming a Core Skill. (Heather Rolfe, NIESR) By setting Risk-taking as a school objective or target, many UK Schools are setting themselves up for failure – or merely ‘fooling themselves. Increasingly, school policy is written to eliminate any possibility of risk-taking or spontaneity. In protecting ourselves, under the guise of protecting our children, creativity is plain and simply being stifled from the crib on.

Many of the ideas I appear to lambast, I do understand and sympathise with – have even held. I understand that with the changes in the law, key members of our establishments find themselves in impossibly responsible – and frightening – positions. I understand that we all want to do our best to protect the young people around us. My point is not to question this; it is to ask whether or not we have gone, and continue to go, too far in the wrong direction.

In doing so, might the horrible irony be that we are harming the majority, in order to protect from shadowy, unsavoury possibilities?

Might we be producing a generation of young people who are unable to and unwilling to take risks, so afraid have they been made to feel about the possible consequences. Instead of asking, ‘What is the worst possible thing that might happen?’ why don’t we ask, ‘What is the worst possible thing that is likely to happen?’ How much freer might we be, whereas, not to do so leads to equivalents such as not boarding a flight in case it might crash; not visiting the London Olympics lest it is the target of a bombing campaign and indeed, not eating out in case someone has poisoned the food!

Problem finding is oh so easy, but  what is the solution? I would suggest that we accept that the world out there has many similarities to the one we have always lived in and that the dangers posed by the internet etc merely magnify what has always existed. (I never sat in front of a television or computer growing up, but I need more than my 2 hands to count the number of times I was ‘flashed’ at!) I would also suggest that young people today are not quite as horrified by some of the things that horrify us as adults – they have been brought up in a very different way, with access to many different media – bringing them, on a day-to-day basis into contact with what we might not fully approve of.  Although, we may feel this in some ways to be a sad indictment of society, it is a true one and we need to work with practical realities in our efforts to prepare children for their places in the real world.

Over-filtering and blocking access to numerous sites in our schools, keeps us in a legally sound position, but morally, we are doing our pupils no service whatsoever – we merely ‘push’ the problem outside of the school building, intensifying it as we do so. (The increased use of VLEs is forcing us to reconsider this position – and fast.) As teachers, many of us know what the issues are – parents often don’t. We have the curriculum relevance in our schools to be able to educate in these areas. I am a real fan of the 360 eSafety Self Review tool by the South West Grid for Learning:  It seems to work on the very sensible premise that the higher the ‘mark’ your school gains, the less you are likely to have ‘locked down’.  And the reason for that? You will have educated your students to make educated and sensible choices for themselves, freeing them up to take personal responsibility for their actions. What is the point in preventing them from accessing certain sites at school, when they can walk out of the door to the classroom and access it from their unfiltered smartphones? With these devices, they can access it on the bus on the way home and also from the pcs which they have in their bedrooms. This is where the true potential danger lies; that because of our policies and approach, children have neither the experience, nor education to make sensible decisions and their mistakes can become ‘big’ and public very quickly.

Much better to open up, for instance, a low-key chat facility in school, allow them to access YouTube – so useful in so many ways – but all this on a monitored network, where low-level mistakes can be picked up at an early stage and  consequences gradually made clear – all within a safe and controlled environment and with  full communication with parents about what the school is trying to achieve.

With proper planning, effective monitoring, a well-communicated AUP and clear sanctions, all this is possible and desirable. Let them take risks, I say!

I’m sure this was written for my daughter!

I’m not sure if it’s okay to keep poaching ideas from other people and sticking them in my blog, but it does make it so much easier!  I read this in today’s i newspaper – also in The Independent and it made me chuckle – we could all do with a bit of light relief after last night’s storm.

I have a daughter due home from uni, this weekend so it did strike a particular chord:

Deborah Ross: Students home for Christmas? There’s fun in store for you!

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

If you ask me, I have thought of another new game for university students and this is also a fine game and a splendid game and this game is played when you come home for Christmas and haven’t seen your mother for months, and it is called, “IF YOU DON’T PUSH PAST HER TO GET AT THE FRIDGE, IT WON’T KILL YOU”.

It is such a simple game that any student can play it, if they’ve a mind. Or a sensitive bone in their body. Or remember all the hours the mother has put in being in goal or playing dinosaurs or attending all those nativity plays during which the one child who knows all the lines shouts them into the faces of the others.

Do you think your mother ever considered this quality entertainment? Do you think she would have attended if it weren’t for you? Do you think she would have said to herself: “I must book tickets so I can see one child who knows all the lines shouting them into the faces of the others? I would hate to miss that?” Do you?

Anyway, there are only two instructions to this game, and the first is:

1) Don’t push past your mother to get at the fridge, it won’t kill you. (According to the British Medical Association, not a single death has yet been linked with not pushing past your mother to get at the fridge, or even an instance of cramp.)

You may wish, however, to play variations on this instruction, which include:

* Don’t push past your mother to get at the fridge and then complain: “Haven’t you done a shop-up?”

* Don’t push past your mother to get at the fridge, complain she hasn’t done a shop-up, drink the entire carton of Tropicana at the fridge door, and then burp so lustily that your mother is all but blown across the kitchen.

And the second instruction is this:

2) Do kiss her on the cheek and say “Hi, you all right?”, which is all she wants, although if you also wish to tell her about your sex life and how much you are drinking exactly and whether you are doing drugs or actually attending lectures, it will save her from having to bombard you with questions at a later date. (Not so sure about this instruction – although it would save all that eavesdropping on telephone conversations and mad, usually false accusations!)

I hope you will enjoy this game and, if so, you may wish to look out for other games in the series like “Don’t Just Dump Your Stuff In The Hall” and “What? You Think Taking It Upstairs Is Going To Kill You?”. There was a suggestion, at some point, that taking your stuff upstairs could lead to Irritable Bowel Syndrome, but even this has lately been disproved.

I could add so many more rules to this game but will stick to just a few:

“Is it going to kill you to put your dishes in the dishwasher?” or indeed, “Would it be a real issue to lift that upturned yoghurt carton – yes, the one that isn’t quite empty – from your bedroom carpet?”

“If you’d like me to hoover your room, you need to clear a space on the floor?”

“Okay, so we’re back to taking about you then; I’d forgotten that your well-being depended on the recurrent theme being Me, Me Me!!!

“It absolutely will affect your future well-being if you do not delete that photo from facebook!”  Never mind your future, you will have a sore behind as soon as your grandmother sees it!”

Only joking, L, my dear – can’t wait to see you and the fridge will be stocked full, and don’t worry.  I’ll stand well back so as not to block your entry!

(Must remember to switch off the facility to comment on this post before she gets to it!)

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