As teacher nicknames go, it’s not the worst. It’s not like my old English teacher who we called Johnny Walker, because he always reeked of whisky any time after ten o’clock in the morning. Or The Peg, our geography teacher with the toxic breath. Or even Bowling Ball Bradley, who could have done with just a touch of powder to take the shine off his reflective pate.
No, as it happens, I don’t mind that one. It’s true, for a start – I do try to fill in the glaring holes and gaps in the ‘education’ we offer to the children at secondary level by offering a little something that they could actually use, to supplement the shockingly useless stuff we make them learn all day long.
Because here’s the shocking truth, as I see it – schools aren’t all that well designed to prepare students for the world. Because, well, they aren’t particularly designed at all.
Let me say first of all, this isn’t the fault of the teachers, or the parents, or even the government. It’s not even Thatcher’s fault, although it sticks in my throat to say it. Well, not completely. The roots of this mangy, misshapen, light-starved tree we call the education system go much deeper into the parched earth than that.
The way we teach children, and the subjects we teach, and the knowledge we impart – these are to a very great extent sheer accidents of history.
Let’s start for example with the idea that we teach children one subject for one hour at a time. Then we teach them something else for another hour, then three other completely different things for three more hours.
Why? Why do we do this? Is this the optimum way to learn? An hour is just long enough to pass on a little bite sized chunk. Not really long enough to absorb it, apply it, put it into practice – all the things you need to do to know that it’s properly learned. I guess this might just work, just about, for knowledge based subjects where you can take in one thing at a time. Maybe. But for skills based subjects, it doesn’t really work at all.
And even that little bite sized chunk, perching in a precarious way inside that teenage brain – well it’s pretty much bound to be shoved out of the way by the next hour long deluge of something else, followed by another hour long deluge about something else entirely.
And by the time you see them again, two or three or seven days later, what do they remember? Precious precious little. To be honest, this particular system could easily have been designed to make children overloaded, grumpy and cross by the end of the day. On which measure it succeeds very well.
And let’s just think about the knowledge we are passing onto the children in school and why. It’s a cliché but honestly, truly – what did you learn at school that you have been able to build on in your adult life? Every year I try to get Y12 to work out basic percentages for their General Studies papers – and they can’t do it. How much of the French that you learned at school can you remember? In subjects like science, even at A Level, much of what you are taught is actually so oversimplified as to be just plain wrong, so it has to be relearned at degree level.
And a lot of what we teach at secondary level, we just teach it because it fits with the current system of teaching and of testing it, rather than for any broader educational reasons. I know that sounds sweeping but I believe it’s true. In English this means focusing a great deal on poetry and short stories. Nothing wrong with that in itself, but it does mean than very many people leave school without having read a full length novel. (And no I don’t really count Of Mice and Men in this, thanks for asking.) Because there’s not the time.
Well, why don’t we make time. Sweep away everything we have right now, and start again, from scratch. Decide what we actually want children to learn, and then design the best system around that, rather than make the content suit the system. And if you think we’re not really qualified to do this, remember that this is Michael Gove’s actual job, and you and I are infinitely better qualified than he will ever be, because we are actually giving it some thought rather than pulling Scrabble tiles out of the bag or whatever random system he’s using.
First of all, let’s stop teaching knowledge in chunks and start teaching skills and knowledge together, in context. Let them apply their new skills, over and over until they are really good at them. Let them apply them to real life situations.
Next, let’s teach children how to do things that are actually useful. I don’t mean turning school into some sort of community centre. I mean teaching children how to find out things, how to create things. Instead of trying to create real life situations in the classroom, artificially, let them live real life. Get them to run their own projects, learning things in properly integrated way; making the skills actually mean something. Because that’s how people actually learn and remember. Let them do one thing for a day, a week, a month. Let a group of them take over the catering department and run the catering – that’ll REALLY teach them about food tech, about ordering quantities, time management, working in teams, effective communication. Or produce a play, or put on a concert. Or write a magazine, or a book. Or create a scientific experiment that runs over time. Or grow stuff in a garden.
In this system, we lose the distinction between academic and not. Which is as it should be, because in the world your success is not measured like that. And, at the risk of sounding like an old hippy, we might gain something really significant. More children might actually experience what it’s like to have a real purpose, to work as part of a team. And they might even find it makes them happy, because happiness comes from finding something you’re good at, and doing it well. The education system seems to be deisgned to show children exactly what they’re not good at and keep testing them on it so that they are absolutely 100% sure that they are no good.
Who does this help?
And if all this sounds a bit radical, then how about this? Write down the top ten things you wish you had learned at school, or learned more about. Is it something like this?:
How to think? How to learn effectively? How to get on with other people? How to get the most out of yourself, and out of others? How to manage people effectively? How the world works? How to run a successful business? How to write and communicate really really well?
How well do you think our school system is doing that right now? Better than when you went to school, or worse, or just about the same?
I think we both know the answer to that.
This is the analogy I would like to leave you with, and it’s not mine. It’s TicTicGirl’s. She just coming out of the sausage machine of our UK education system. She’s incredibly bright, is TicTacGirl, and very well-qualified but she’s feeling a little bit scared right now. A bit scared that she isn’t really ready to go out into the world.
She says the current secondary system is all about creating nice, square, neat bricks of knowledge. They are all the same size and you can count them. And you pile them on top of each other until you have what looks like a nice high wall. TicTacGirl’s wall is very high and looks super, but if you push that wall, even just a little push you’ll realise that there isn’t any mortar between the bricks. And it all comes tumbling down.
So that’s why I don’t mind too much being called The Sharer. Because I do try to slap around a little mortar whenever I can, tell them some stuff that they can use. I try and make them happy in the classroom, because the system seems pretty well-designed to make them mostly miserable.
And tomorrow I might just pluck up the courage to ask what the other nickname might be. Because that’s another thing I like to model: sometimes, children, you have to take a few risks, because that’s what makes life interesting.