What do we believe in? It seems obvious: free speech, equal access to education and health care, a society in which the rule of law transcends the natural and careless cruelty of dictators and lunatics, and a mutual respect for the rights of all no matter how young or old, whatever gender, colour or race they are, or however they choose to lives their lives, always provided, of course, that this does not imperil the lives of others. Uncontroversial, surely.
But then, as so often, I find my views questioned and have to work out how and if I should reassert them, change them, jettison them or go into therapy! And the person who made me start another internal dialogue was Alan Maley, a man whose longevity in our field is matched only by the enormous contributions he has made in so many areas, not least his editorship of the Oxford teachers’ resource books series, but also as an article writer, prizewinning author of readers, inspired teacher and inveterate conference goer.
Eight days ago (as I write this) Alan gave a plenary at the FAAPI conference in Argentina. It was a very successful plenary – that is to say it got people talking, questioning and arguing which is exactly one of the functions of a good event! His argument, though, was a familiar one; that school is not a good place to learn anything, that testing is mechanised and wrong (he quoted a list of good and bad by Luke Prodromou in which tests were aligned with everything that is bad); and that most education impedes rather than promotes learning. Along the way he quoted a familiar list of 1970s polemicists such as Paolo Freire (The Pedgagogy of the `Oppressed) and Ivan Illich (De-schooling Society). He contrasted the apallingness of school systems with the openness of unplanned learning destinations and championed the need for activities that promote creativity which, he claimed, schools militate against. Along the way he let slip the idea (with which I am completely in agreement) that the sonnet form, with all its restrictions actually provokes poetic creativity precisely because of those restrictions. In conversation afterwards he said that he could not remember anything he learned at school – a place he clearly had no fond memories of.
You agree with him, right? Except, well there were about 1200 teachers in the audience, many of whom worked in the kind of school systems that he was criticising. Were their efforts in vain? Could the absurd push for outcomes and targets which many of them have to live by actually destroy the learning potential of countless thousands of students? Are they, therefore, complicit in the undermining of the Argentinean soul? ‘Hey teacher, leave them kids alone!’ REALLY?
Universal access to education is only possible, isn’t it, if systems are put in place? Systems are sometimes, by their nature, not noted for their creativity. Schools do need to regulate themselves, don’t they? And as for tests, ARE they always evil, or do they, at their best, actually celebrate achievement and success? We all know how bad it feels to fail a test, but how good does it feel to pass one? And if school is restrictive maybe the rule of the sonnet applies? That the very restrictions which are imposed actually provoke creativity and ingenuity. You see my dilemma. Every creative urge in my body wants to agree with Alan; yet I cannot conclude that schools are, by their nature, bad places for learning, or that teachers, in general, stifle creativity.
I come from a country where a right-wing government wants to re-introduce the divisions that the left (with the glorious and largely successful ideal of comprehensive education) rejected for more than 60 years. Anyone can set up a school now and it seems the government wants to destroy the organisations that seek to make the system work, so that we can all be ‘free’. Alan would approve, I think. Except that this move will bring back the divisions and educational sectarianism which successive progressive governments in the UK have sought to take out of them.
And if schools are so bad, how come so many of us learnt stuff? By accident? Despite the schools? Or maybe we didn’t.
Is ‘system’ a natural enemy of growth and creativity? That’s my question for this post.
(And, for the record, I went to a fancy private boarding school – not my choice, and not the choice we made for my children; it was a mix of good and bad like most schools but it represented a system I have been dead against ever since)
Hmm, tricky one this! I agree emotionally that ‘free’ learning is the best way to learn and that test-focused and stamdardising education stifle learning and teaching but… I think that I feel this way because I am interested in learning, now. I wasn’t all that keen when I was a teenager and if left to my own devices would probably have learnt nothing (well nothing academic anyway!) Without structures to insist on learning then I imagine most children would opt to spend their time doing things that require little or no effort and that fall into the pursuit of pleasure category rather than slogging away at trig or geography or whatever. I also simply don’t believe that anyone leaves school having learnt nothing, hopefully at the very least you have learnt to read and write, essentail skills for anyone wishing to choose their own learning later.
I do think however that overtesting is a problem (in the UK at least) with more and more time given over to teaching for the test and a consequent drop in exploration of topics, it is a system that seemingly makes teachers incidental to the process, their knowledge is irrelevant, only the test material matters. This is an awful state of affairs and one that the current govt. seems in no hurry to address. It cannot be true however that systemised education destroys the desire to learn or we wouldn’t be having this conversation I guess. That the system needs improving is a given (I think) but as you say the need to guarantee access to education creates the need for a system to deliver it.
Incidentally I too went to a public school in the UK (also not by choice, we moved a lot) and I agree it is unfair to the vast majority of children who will never have access to the kind of resources and privileges that this offers. However, my gripe is less with the private schools and more with the underinvestment in state schools, if we have enough money to invade Iraq and host Olympic games and build trident missiles etc. then why not enough money to fund school building, reduce class sizes and pay teachers adequately? I have no confidence at all that a cottage industry of schooling (which, must, surely, eventually be run by companies) will improve the situation. If you want to ringfence spending, then ringfence education – it’s got to be a worthwhile investment! (Rant over, sorry!)
all the best
thanks for your comments.
I completely agree with you about investment in public schools (= private in the UK, something that confuses many people from other countries) should be shared – or given to – state schools. If all schools had the privileges that private schools have (smaller classes, better conditions for all – including teachers – then we’d see something amazing happening, I think.
I agree that in the UK, at least, we test kids far far too much – especially at the early stages. And yet test CAN be great motivators too. There’s a balance to be struck there somewhere…
I’m glad you’re raising this issue Jeremy! With the great minds that often comment here on your blog, I’m looking forward to a heated discussion.
I have many times pondered over a similar question: Would the world be a better place if no one went to school? Well, obviouslt I don’t know the answer. The most I can do is to reflect on my own schooling and share a similar view with Alan, ‘it sucked’, but than I can’t blame the school system solely, it’s the whole thing, parents, friends, the place you live, the place you sleep and so on.
My recent contention has been to support the idea that teaching doesn’t cause learning. The argument is that learning methods of instruction occupy too much of the teacher’s time when instead they would be of better help if they stepped away more often and ‘let ’em students be’. A great example can be found on this acclaimed TED talk by Sugatra Mitra ‘The child-driven education’ http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/sugata_mitra_the_child_driven_education.html
On a practical level, what I suggest is that ALL decisions that will impact on a person’s education needs to have this person’s voice. A good example of this would be students participating in the design of the school calendar, like when tests will be held, how long they’ll have for holidays, how many hours a day they’ll be there, and so on.
Further thoughts I gave on this matter can be found on this series ‘Forget teaching, focus on learning’
(…and very nice seeing you again!)
thanks so much for your comments (and great to see you too; looking forward to a picture of YOUR guitar!!)
I think the whole of education is some kind of a tension between ‘teacher leave those kids alone’ and teachers helping and guiding and showing stduents what’s what and where to go. My challenge I think to the idea that all children can self learn is what you do with kids who can’t.
I liked your blog post based on Herbert’s extract. Of COURSE I think students should get it themselves; learner autonomy is a highly respectable and desirable goal. But not all learners can or want to be autonomous, I think?
I have no answer about this. But I ‘hear’ Mark’s comments about being ‘turned onto languages’ at school and think that had a lot to do with the teacher as well as the learner?
Timely questions and post for me. I’m watching “Waiting for Superman” and needed a break!
Sometimes I get tired about all this talk about, “is school inherently bad” or a “necessary evil”. People see things so myopically and black and white. School to me is a system BUT we’d be best to look at a school as not an island, no school is an island. We’d do well to borrow from living systems theory and read some Miller and relate school as a system and dynamic component of a whole. Holistic theory is needed.
Good schools, like good systems, come in many forms. The key to their survival and that they flourish, is based on a) how information is processed b) how the sum of their parts is connected to the whole c) that they change and have self regulation We needn’t throw away schools but we must realize that they need to change dramatically given the new world out there. That’s why we need leadership and why those old guys from the 60s/early 70s are still so relevant. Nothing’s changed and they are like the old lady in the cattle car crying, “Fire, fire, the fire”.
Teaching is an art (I think you’ve said that a few times too over your career). There is not one size or system to fit all. It must be done to local conditions and variables BUT most importantly, it must be done in a way so a school is not isolated from the life that is out there and which gives it energy and being. That’s why I’m so in favor of the community schooling model and also, that children/students go to school only if they want to. Others might not see the link but for anything to work within a system, there can be no coercion.
But I think we will keep on trying to kill this butterly with a sledgehammer. Didn’t the old proverb or yore say that “a fish will be the last one to discover water”?
So I have to say that I’m in the middle. We need a system but also a system that operates with a level of freedom and as a process, not a straight jacket and as a part divorced from the whole.
yes, I think I agree with you quite a lot here. It’s not ‘school’ that sis inherently bad, just a thoughtless and absurd application of systems. The great glory of the UK’s ‘comprehensive’ system is that when it worked (and let’s be clear, it didn’t always), it allowed students from all walks of life to flourish. I think my point is that schools CAN be places of great creative force and fire, but it takes commitment from both teachers and administrators.
I like the Alistair Pennycook comment about needing to see language learning not in the domain of linguistics but rather society’ – pr something like that. Schools do reflect the societies they exist in. But – and this was the point of my self-questioning after Alan’s talk – the best schools can be really good. What WAS bad (and I believe Alan was a victim of this) was a system where kids were divided into ‘sheep’ and ‘goats’ aged 11 (I’m talking about the UK here), and if you were a goat (or maybe a sheep but anyway an underachiever) your education was never going to be as good as the other lot. Invidious.
Systems for whom by whom? The problem does not the teachers or the learners, but with arrogant politicians and policy makers who think they can make decisions for people they don’t know or care about in perpetuity.
Systems enslave. Systems are violent. Tests are for the satisfaction of systems. Government only wants to control and can be entrusted with very little, and never with the education of our children. Children’s natural curiosity and desire to learn can be trusted.
We “learnt stuff,” because we do that. We wanted to speak, and we did it without school. We learned to ride bicycles, but we did it without school. We learned countless abilities without school, far more than we ever learned in the system’s joyless buildings.
There is a difference between schooling and education. I choose education for my children.
I absolutely understand your contempt (too strong a word?) for political interference in education. I hate it when politicians who are not education professionals start shouting about education and what to do about it. Crazy.
I also understand the idea that systems enslave.
And yet. And yet.
We learnt stuff? But do we need any guidance to help us? Or none at all? And if we do benefit from guidance how should it be offered? And how should it be offered in a class of thirty kids?
And when you answer that question, do you begin to design systems?
Great post to read on a Monday morning to re-focus my week. I have been struggling with control and compliance model that so many schools use. I agree that schooling doesn’t always lead to learning and especially not the intrinsically motivated, life-long learning model that we profess to support and create. The discussion about the sonnet form reminds me of the conversation with teachers about using twitter. The restrictions can both be supportive to deep thinking and creativity and limiting to good dialogue. It seems as thought the key may lie in the scaffolding that surrounds the use of the tool whether it is sonnets, twitter, or a education system.
thanks so much for your comments.
Yes, I think Twitter’s restrictions are both liberating and enslaving all at the same time! If that is possible. Twitter generates trivia, but also, on many occasions, episodes of laughter and creativity, I think.
I could not (would not want to) disagree with you about scaffolding. But my question (about that) has always been whether or not facilitative scaffolding is appropriate for al kids or whether some of them respond well to being taught!!! Is groupwork discovery always better than the lecture?
It was in school that I was introduced to languages, where I developed my love for languages and where I had teachers who instilled in me the belief that communicating with people in other languages and reading things in other languages was worth all the hard work that was involved in it.
Some people will learn languages despite school, because of their home backgrounds and their parental support, but for many people schools and classrooms will be the only place where some young people are encouraged and motivated by teachers who want to open their eyes up to how learning languages can enrich their lives.
We need systems to regulate and to distribute resources fairly and yes to redistribute resources when appropriate. And in language teaching in Britain we need to reverse New Labour’s crazy idea of making languages optional after the age of 14. It has had a catastrophic effect on language education in Britain.
Thanks for raising the issue Jeremy.
thanks for coming along and for putting the other side of the picture so convincingly and eloquently. Yes, school CAN turn you on! My historian daughter (lecturer at LSE) was definitely ‘turned on’ to history at 6th form college, a highly systematized place, exam oriented etc etc. The only reason I mention her (family anecdotes never really a god thing) is that you could actually, as an observer, see it happening. Wonderful. For my part, school gave me a love of music, drama all sorts of tings like that.
But yes, it also freaked me out with subjects where I did badly because of poor teaching etc (or in my case, poor learning!). So I understand the ‘school is bad’ point but I can’t accept it as a generality.
As for language learning itself, I agree with you about one million percent about the UK. Our language learning policy in schools is a disgrace and makes little Englanders of us all. Horrible. Language learning is good for the brain and good for world citizenship, I’d say.
There are probably 2 different aspects to think about here. Firstly schools, the students and teachers that fill them. Next the system of education (with its emphasis on exams and what that actually means)
Just for the record, I grew up in one of the UK’s most deprived areas (Middlesbrough) where I went to secondary school and left with a handful of O and A levels.
Back then the system was different – there was not the emphasis as there is today on pushing for everyone to go to University. And this affected the schools and the way things were taught too. I recall really enjoying A Level English Lit. as we discussed texts in real depth and didn’t do even one practice exam paper!
What I’m going to say here might come across as not very politically correct – but because I grew up working class, went to school in an area of extreme social deprivation I speak from life experience a million miles away from the leafy North London suburbs of the current labour party leader.
The whole idea that increasing numbers of students who attend university is synonymous with a more successful education system is so flawed. There are so many students for whom a really good apprenticeship system or a more practical based training would work better. It’s only because of this crazy notion that lots of qualifications (of a particular kind) are the only valuable currency that we see an education system hell bent on teaching to the test and churning out exam results.
I can see this because I also live it in my working life. I teach English IGCSE to students in Switzerland and at the end of the day it doesn’t matter how inspirational or memorable lessons are, if they don’t score C or above in the exam then the time is deemed wasted, because they can’t get to the next level.
You see there should be nothing wrong with students who are less academic taking a more practical route (not exam based). Training schemes, learning on the job – these need to be supported and given the respect they deserve.
Unfortunately many of what I call “middle class left wing socialists” who have no idea of what it’s like to live and grow up in real working class areas – have tended to – with the best will in the world – impose their own beliefs of “equality” through policy. But what it has done is to devalue traditional non-academic routes of training and create a system where everyone is told “you can go to University” and a belief that if this doesn’t happen then you’ve failed.
Until this changes – then schools will remain “exam factories” and it takes a truly exceptional teacher to inspire and reaffirm low achieving students’ sense of self-worth when all around them there is such pressure to “get a C or above”. Incidentally, this also means that families with money who can afford extra tutoring for their kids do better in the system.
Just thinking back to my school days in the 80’s. In my school we had kids getting arrested for shoplifting, kids with parents in jail, kids from really poor areas, we also had 3 kids who despite all of that, were so brilliant academically they won places at Oxford and Cambridge. Today one is a top lawyer in the city and the other a leading surgeon in Manchester. They still got there. (wherever “there” is!)
So the system basically needs to honour other non-academic routes and well meaning politicians need to think twice before speaking for a whole section of society which they know very little about.
thank you for those really heartfelt comments. I hear two things going on: firstly that school CAN be transformative and/but that the UK needs to think much harder about vocational training as an alternative to the one-size fits all model that we seem to work by most of the time.
Other countries seem to know how to do this better than the UK. But how do they avoid making it ‘sheep or goats’ – as in the old days of dividing kids up at aged 11 on the basis of academic results?
I think politicians and education often go together very badly! Yet, I insist, with system there is achievement and creativity for only the lucky few…
In Switzerland they still have what amounts to the 11+ where they stream students into 3 different levels. The top levels go to “pro gymnasium” and are in the stream set for University.
The middle level go to “Secondarschule” and at this level the students can enter all kinds of professions. They often study book-keeping, marketing, or certain banking related jobs. As well as being educated to a very good level generally, they spend a year in business as an “intern” learning on the job.
Regulations are very strict regarding this, in other words, they must receive proper training and not just be making cups of tea and photocopying!
The lowest academic stream is “Realschule” students often end up in trades and apprenticeship schemes through this stream.
Some people might say that this system is not fair, but actually in most cases it is fair. And the level simply opens the door to different types of jobs and training possiblities.
Many many people who had “middle level” schooling have ended up in jobs where they have excellent earning potential. (40k +) and often people decide to top up their qualifications on the job with a business related MA for example, which is then partly funded by the companies. Not only that, the majority of people who have completed this level of schooling speak a 2nd language (French or English) to about B2 level. (Not bad compared to the general standard of 2nd language attainment in the UK)
What I have noticed (I work in a school with students aged 16-18 from Swiss backgrounds and also from UK/International backgrounds) is that the level of attainment cetainly in maths and sciences is far higher in Swiss students than British students. While a bright British 15 year old will be sitting their IGCSE a year early, a bright Swiss 15 year old takes A level maths. I’m not entirely sure of why that is yet.
Certainly the standards in the Gymnasium (University) stream seem to me to be far higher than GCSE’s
Back to the division at 11. The only situation there can be potential problems with this system is when parents and students don’t agree with their placement. In this case, it is possible to move between levels. For example. my Swiss husband was streamed in the higher level and decided he wanted to move down.
I would hope it’d be just as possible for students to move up.
When there is flexiblitiy and when the streaming leads to good education and opportunities fitting with the students academic ability, I don’t have a problem with streaming. Although one measure I think needs to be taken is that the most gifted teachers, the best teachers, need to be teaching at the lowest academic level and also, it’s essential that this links into a healthy apprenticeship system so that kids at all levels have very real opportunities when they leave school.
ps) Sorry about my typos – I wanted to edit but can’t seem to find an edit button.
I think I’ve edited out most of them!
Schools are definitely effective and things are certainly learned. It just depends on what. Turkey’s education system is a perfect example. You’ve got a lot of blind beliefs about some rather skewed history which is negative from many outsiders’ perspectives, but positive from theirs. You’ve also got a populace that learned to read and write in Latin script within a generation, which is amazing and has been highly beneficial. Either way, the schools created the individuals and instilled the beliefs it had been designed for.
As David says, both good and bad comes out of education, but it depends on what values we are defining success by. Schools do what they were designed to do. These days we often talk about creativity, challenging entrenched social institutions, and critically examining ourselves and our world. These are things schools do not traditionally do and for which teachers are often not educated to facilitate. Change the goals of the system and open up the mechanisms that oversee it and schools as a whole will start to shift. Until then, it’s simply up to individual teachers to do what they can to instill that love of languages or poetry or trigonometry in their students.
Additionally, I agree with a lot of what Steph had to say.
School is bad for learning? Hmm. There is no doubt that in this day and age parents, universities, governing bodies etc are more interested in grades and statistics than they are in the ACTUAL development of the child. I do think though, that this is the nature of the beast…. let’s be honest, education is not the only thing in life that comes down to numbers is it? However, I have always felt that you can still develop a child within these restrictions and that falls within the remit of the indivdual schools and their educators. Less swimming against the tide, more finding and polishing diamonds in the mud.
After all, I remember recently reading someone asking how so many people managed to learn a languge in a learning environment before the advent of the ‘miraculous’ communicative method. Certainly, I would never have become a teacher if my teachers had taught me nothing.
My concern is that, specifically in ELT, I wonder whether anything is really being doen by the profession to support and train ELT teachers (who must make up about 90% of the profession) in these restrictive state school situations. Everything seems geared to the rarified atmosphere of the private ELT classroom, not classes of 30+ students who sit at elephant ear desks with an old coursebook shared between two, listening to a teacher who is exhausted and under-resourced. And you know Jermey that this scenario still exists. For many teachers, the world Alan Maley talks about is just a pipe dream and I wonder that we would be better off supporting state school teachers more in the tremendous work they do, achieving the near impossible and, by doing so, come closer to making these dreams a reality.
yes I remember someone asking that question about how people learnt back in the bad old systematized AL days too!!
I love the swimming against the tide vs polishing diamonds analogies. Fantastic.
I think you capture my point exactly; that systems do help to HELP teachers and stduents in less than ideal circumstances. Or rather, they CAN help. Most education happens in places like that, and not all of it is bad, I think.
Yes. Everyone should support the vast majority of teachers who work in less than ideal circumstances. I agree.
what interesting comments! So Turkish kids do learn and learn well! But what they learn is a different matter (please don’t misunderstand me, anyone who reads this; I am, at least here, completely neutral about this). In the previous post I worried about whether teachers can or should take their own interests into the class. That’s a bit like thinking about government syllabi, isn’t it!
Schools do enslave. And they are a mechanism of control. But they don’t have to be. The reflect the society we live in. They are also an opportunity for children to be brought together and to learn how to be part of a community and how to operate and function in a collective environment with people who are different to them (I am talking about a state school model now). They are an opportunity for informal learning which, I would argue, is just as important as the formal stuff that goes on in lessons. I think the idea of abandoning schools or the Conservative-Liberal Democrat model of parents (and just about anyone it seems) being eligible to set up their “own” school is a response to the fact that the current system in the UK based on over-testing and standardised learning is just not working. Parents have lost faith in schools and (sadly) in teachers (though the latter I believe is largely because teachers get the blame for things that are not really their fault and are given so much bad press for under-resourcing issues which muddy the waters). I believe in education as empowerment and despise just like you the aspects of schooling that seek to break the confidence of children and make them compliant.
The question is do we stick around and try to change them or do we jump ship and support other initiatives? In revolutionary moments within society, schools are one of the first insitutions to start operating differently. They are clearly very significant places which can either be site of oppression or a site of change. Look at the instances of school students and university students throughout history who have led moments of historical change.
Speaking personally I hated school for the fact that it tried to tell me what to do (“it” being metaphorical), but it was that which created the spirit I now have and the social side of school was really important. Like Mark, I also had one or two teachers who really helped me to appreciate the value of education in a wider sense. Education is full of non-conformists after all – it is one of the “safe” havens for people of vision.
So all in all – I say let’s try to change it and make it better. Those who have the choice to exercise alternatives are often amongst the priviledged few (home schooling, private ed, setting up a school) and although I support the former for those who want it, it fills me with a sense of abandonment in the same way as hermits who choose to withdraw from society because they prefer their own company. Let’s stick around, join forces, resist the current changes in education and make it better.
I agree ultimately with Mark that a system (though not one based on the market and priciples of privilege for the few) is necessary to ensure resources are fairly allocated. Maybe what we should be working on is getting things back to that vision of society and education where education is not based on the individualised market driven approach so evident (at least in Europe) today.
an elegant and well-argued response (that’s not meant to sound patronising). I agree with your ‘abandonment’ comment. I have always felt that about people who opt out of the system for their kids. But then I remember how passionately we fight for our own children’s success, and i reflect that living in Cambridge it was not difficult to choose to send kids to state schools because, here, they are generally very good.
But yes, one of the many values of a decent school is the way it teaches people to live together – and how (I am becoming more sure of this now) it teaches people to live within, outside and despite systems. One of the great learning lessons is to work out how to exist within a system and/or how to subvert it and use it (like the sonnet form?) creatively.
And you are right about teachers ‘getting the blame’. I don’t think ALL teachers are wonderful; of course not. Nut some of them are and they have learned how to exist within a system and how to use it to the benefit of children.
Perhaps school is the ‘best worst’ system we have; the alternative is a kind of elitist anarchy where those with power, articulacy and influence are unfairly advantaged over those who do not have these things.
I think my worries about some methodology advanced by comfortable teachers in comfy little schools (to use a phrase coined some years ago by an Argentinean guy called Pablo Toledo) is that it is sometimes/can sometimes be elitist in the same way. I’ll have to blog about that later`.
Sorry JH – can you insert “Con-Dem coalition” where I write “new labour” above (though I was no fan of the new labour model either I have to say!)
What a great discussion your post has created… reading the comments has been very enriching and gave me a pretty good idea of the UK’s educational system – which as any other countries has much to work on. And after reading all of the comments (and your replies) I felt I could contribute with perhaps a different view on things, maybe more like Mark’s.
From what I’ve read here the Brazilian educational system greatly resembles the UK’s. Let me start by saying when I talk about our schools I mean our private schools, because the public system does not work. There are no investments, just trashed schools, no resources, kids who attend school with no intention of learning (they do it just so their families can receive the government’s idea of education incentive for the masses, “Bolsa Familia” which basically gives each family a certain amount of money monthly as long as their kids simply attend school. But I won’t go into this because I am completely against the idea and will rant about it for hours – don’t want to lose focus here). Still on our public school system you have underpaid teachers (I mean REALLY underpaid), students who physically threaten teachers, and finally kids who leave school after at least 11/12 years (if they never fail a level) who can barely read. Of course there are exceptions, but that is the rule. So please understand why I’ll be refering to the private schooling.
I guess I was privileged on my parents’ choice of school for me and my siblings. I only attended one school in my life, an extremely progressive, unconventional school. Creativity was fostered and awarded. Students were encouraged to question (respectfully of course) what teachers taught, what was on the books. We were pushed to interpret things differently. Students’individualities was highly respected. Sounds wonderful doesn’t it? And it was. I owe most of what I’ve become to it, and I think much of my teaching approach, my beliefs about teaching are a reflection of the way I was taught. Doesn’t it sound like the kind of school Alan Maley dreams of? Maybe it was.
AND YET, there was a system. There were restrictions, and rules. We were encouraged to commit and excel at the subjects that we identified ourselves with but we also had to study the ones we didn’t like and do well at them. We were punished when we disrespected rules. So my point here is that like so many others have written before me here, SOME system is needed for things to work. There are good and bad schools. Quite obviously the goal for us is to tip the scale so that we have more of those. Just don’t ask me how to do it 🙂
Slightly off-topic, (think of it as a pause for a fun anecdote) just as an illustration of how progressive the school was, I recall one particular episode where one of the boys from my class (quite impressively) carried an ant’s nest – you heard it right – he found in the yard and placed it on top of one of the classroom’s fan’s paddle and waited for the teacher (and all the students) to come in for class and turn the fan on. Of course sand and ants flew everywhere (we had very small classrooms), mayhem took over and the class did not happen. Now, sorry for the long story, but bear with me if you’re still reading because I’m about to make my point for telling the story. One of the school’s director (also one of the owners) came to lecture us about it. She was skinning us, talking about suspension, etc… then one of the students stood up and told her who had done it. She suspended the ant terrosrist, but before she did she gave the “rat” an earful. She said that above everything there should be loyalty among friends, that he shouldn’t have ratted just to save his own skin, that the correct thing would be for the guilty party to have come forward on his own, etc, etc… That’s the kind of school (and education) I had… principles. Values. Ethics. So there is hope. My kids go to a wonderful school (not as forward thinking though) and they learn about citizenship, character and enterpreneurship along with the regular, required subjects.
Having said that, I also want to leave here my view on what you said about the value of tests. Karenne Sylvester posted on the evil of grades (which I here relate to standardized testing on my own risk) on her blog a while ago: http://kalinago.blogspot.com/2010/09/another-post-on-motivation.html . I have to admit I didn’t comment because I was a bit ashamed to say that I am one of those people who like taking tests. I felt great when I did well on them and doing badly usually pushed me to try harder and go after a better grade. After reading this you’d think I am for such tests. Well, you’d be wrong.
Despite my successful personal experience with tests, I don’t think they’re an effective evaluation tool. They’re too rigid – at least they way they’re done today – and privilege one kind of learner only. And as I worked my way into teaching I realized the diversity of learners and learning styles there is. I’ve seen brilliant students who are poor test takers, be it for anxiety reasons, be it for having ADHD… you name it. So I don’t believe in tests because they’re not fair, they don’t give every student an equal chance to show what they’ve learned. Yes, I do believe testing may be necessary in some instances, but even at those there has to be change, find a way to see/evaluate learning holistically (I liked what David said about Holistic theory being needed).
I see the evil of testing in how kids are not encouraged to learn what is being taught, but rather learn how to successfully use the information to respond to tests. I see a lot of memorizing and learning to be tested, not learning per se. At the language institute I teach we evaluate/grade students using electronic portfolios, and we’ve been extremely successful with it. It allows students to show us their learning, to take ownership of it. Beautiful right? Well, we still have “pop quizzes” to test the grammar, vocabulary, etc – they just weigh a lot less in the final grade.
Wow… sorry for the long comment. I hope I didn’t lost myself along the way. Thanks for raising such an important issue.
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A post close to my heart. I feel that high school and testing failed me by not making me work as I could get through without working and maintain good grades. In that sense, the reward of good grades can be like a vaccine against learning.
Of course I “learned things” in school but I could also have “learned things” in a cave filled with empty cereal boxes. It doesn’t mean it is an ideal learning environment, or that we can’t do better.
I like what Nietzche said: In large states public education will always be mediocre, for the same reason that in large kitchens the cooking is usually bad.
Learning happens at an individual level, even if the methods are social and in groups, and the medieval methods, of which dogme could proudly be considered a part of, still have relevancy because of this:
Tests may be standardized, people are not… although we risk trying to “write students with tests” by focusing on contents over higher level thinking.
I believe that treating people as if they have a brain causes them to have one.
I believe that:
-books,(I learned more through the books I read in my desk than in many of the classes. While I keep getting offers of university accreditation from spammers, there is no way to fake having read hundreds or thousands of books…)
-certain teachers in High school, University and (yes, above all…) the National Circus School
saved me to some extent, and taught me how to work, and think at a higher level than before. Individuals in the system, using it, are what make it work, not the system itself.
I believe that simple to use technology, such as your blog or even a pencil, paper, and stamp, allow individuals to connect without the traditional hiarchical system, allowing a nobody like myself to talk “tu-a-tu” to more knowledgable people such as yourself and Scott, and learn very specific things faster than even an excellent book.
I believe that different approaches work for different people and that a “trad school” (which is in and of itself many things to many people) can put non-useful limits on content, rather than useful limits on structure, like the sonnet mentioned before. This structure is best used, not studied… which is why we don’t spend a lot of time looking at the new html5 code for twitter: we wants tweets.
People are good at making and using systems.
Systems are terrible at making and using people.