Thursday 21 June 2012

Removing the rose-tinted educational spectacles

I have recently bought some prescription sunglasses (oh the perils of ageing) that give everything I look at a rosy hue. This is lovely and the world does look so much better filtered through a reddish lens. I've even taken to wearing them on the overcast days of the Great British Summer (TM) to help brighten up my world. But I am aware that I am succumbing to an optical illusion, a mood enhancing prism, a fanciful reimagining of what I know reality to be. After all, the Great British Summer is still somewhat grey, wet and chilly.

Speaking of ageing, next year will mark my 18th as a teacher (meaning every child I teach was born after I started teaching - oh the misery) and the 30th since I myself started secondary school in the far north of England. These are sobering facts lined up against my pretensions of youth, and may have to be mitigated by instead adopting pretensions of wisdom through experience (I suspect I'm already guilty of that through this blog).

But thinking about how the world has changed since I started secondary school and starting teaching is a powerfully positive thing. In 1983 I distinctly remembering waiting for my friend's Vic20 computer to load a simple game via the faxlike screeching of a cassette tape. More often than not, after 15 minutes of attempting this, the programme would crash and we'd be back to square one. By 1995 computers had improved massively but the school I started in had a 1:30 ration of students to computers, and these were essentially e-typewriters used principally for word processing. Now I sit at a Pret waiting for a meeting, blogging merrily away to the world. Via my mobile!!!

And the changes go beyond technology. I remember in 1983 the family chip pan, a lard receptacle through which many of our meals were delivered. By 1995 things had improved immeasurably, but there were no alternatives to full fat milk or sugar or high sodium salt. By 2012 we have seen life expectancy rise to the point that most children born today are expected to live to 100.

I could go on. Watching a Boris Bike go by I can imagine what the streets of London were like 18 and 30 years ago in terms of traffic, pollution, bike-friendliness and safety. As I watch the businesswoman in her Nikes I can only imagine how much better ergonomics within engineering have got and the impact that has on us. As I look at the ethnic mix around me I can vaguely remember the post-Brixton, post-Toxteth racism of our country and marvel at how far we have come (and how far we have still to go).

And yet when it comes to the world of education, and student performance in exams in particular, there seems to be a developing consensus that things have only got worse, that exams have only got easier, that school leavers have only got stupider. How is that? How have we come to a position where all objective measures show an improving school system and yet the common view is that we have dumbed down? I remember the education world of 1983, with teachers newly removed of the power to physically punish, but retaining the aggression and spite that accompanied it (thrown board rubbers, pulled hair at the nape of the neck, standing on toes to intimidate). I remember having to write down word-for-word what teachers wrote on the board day-in-day-out and I remember that getting more frequent at A-Level. I remember the failure rate of so many of my peers, how it messed up their lives and deadened their aspirations, and how so much of it was down to poor teaching and poor pastoral care.

And I look out now over a teaching profession that is professional, caring and outcomes-focused in a way that I could only have dreamed of in 1995, let alone 1983. It is still not perfect by any stretch of the imagination (so much done, so much to do is these days a common narrative for most teachers) but it is immeasurably better and so are the students we produce. They may be smarter in different ways to the success stories of the 1980s (less compliant, less constrained, less biddable) but they are definitely smarter.

Unfortunately the voices of doom have decided that they know best and they have donned their rose-tinted spectacles and decided to reform education in the model of the 1980s, or 1950s to some people's minds. They have pulled the wool over the eyes of the media and, through these, the country at large. As a result we are sleepwalking into a world of the haves and have nots again. We need to be confident about our successes and stop this from happening. We need to look forward to new opportunities not backwards to a golden age that only existed for the minority. And to do that we need to engage with proposed changes, challenge the thinking that underpins them and confidently assert our professional knowledge and understanding of what is right for our wonderfully smart 21st century students.

1 comment:

  1. I am not sure that students are "smarter" - pretty hard to assess that - but they definitely are smart and have a lot of potential, like all children and generations before them. What they do have though is more freedom, more opportunities to learn in ways that would translate into intellectual, social and emotional growth.
    As for the "voices of doom" there are always counterbalanced by the optimistic ones. It has always been the case that the world moves forward and progress happens, irrespective of views.
    I agree on what you suggest in the last paragraph - engaging in professional dialogue, exchanging ideas and finding a common ground for the future of education.

    @surreallyno on Twitter