Friday, 18 May 2018

Education - what for? Where? When? How?

I've been trying an experiment. What happens if you put 'how', 'why', 'when', 'what for', 'where', before the word 'education'? 

Let's start with 'where?'

Mostly, we think of education in quite a narrow way in terms of 'where?' It's the stuff that goes on in schools and colleges, supposedly. As it happens, when I was writing my memoir 'So They Call You Pisher!' I reminded myself that a huge amount of what have been formative experiences happened to me outside of school. What's more a good deal of these were experiences that enabled me to access what they offered me in the state school and university system from 1949 to 1969 - and indeed for what I did later for an MA and a Ph.D. Of course, in one sense I was very privileged, not by the standards of wealth particularly but both my parents were teachers. Actually, they were more than teachers - they were two people almost fanatically attached to the idea that life was a teacher and that they could in the broadest sense of the word teach about life wherever they were, whenever they were awake! (yes, it was quite a burden sometimes!)

But are there more universal ways in which we can think of out-of-school as 'education'? There are certainly plenty of facilities that are about learning new stuff, from museums to football stadiums to 'Go Ape' climbing experiences to libraries and much more.  Could there be a way, in which the relationship between formal school learning and informal out-of-school learning could be made into some kind of proper set-up? Perhaps some schools do this. Public (ie private !) boarding schools pride themselves on this being built into the virtues of the system: there are lessons, there is homework time (prep) and there are activities that school students can do, laid on by the school for the students to choose and attend (I gather!). Again, writing my memoir, I reminded myself just how powerful my out-of-school interests were for building up a sense of what mattered to me and much of it 'competed' with the in-school stuff in terms of me asking myself, which is more valuable? (In one area, this has often nagged at me: literature. Was there any way that any teacher or anyone else could tell me that the lyrics of Bob Dylan were less valuable than the poems I was being taught in school? )

If we say, 'when Education?' again, we are stuck mostly with school and university. I've been very lucky to have been able to afford to do an MA and a Ph.D., so though that's quite a privileged idea of what 'further education' is, I will never ever underestimate the value and power of studying again when you're in your forties or fifties, say. Or indeed at any time! Surely, in an ideal society that wants to advance has to think of its citizens going on inquiring, acquiring knowledge and skills, exploring fields of interest as far as it's possible to go? Isn't this desirable both at an individual and social level. Ultimately the 'good' of this will filter through in terms of the total 'value' of a society. To put this in place needs us to think of how we can link education 4-18 with every possible further education institution...and how to make it easier for people to opt into such places, one day a week, or short courses, or however. 

If we ask, why education?, we come up against powerful orthodoxies, such as: education is for the whole person, every aspect of our being can and should be developed by education and who's to say from within education why one part of one's existence is more important an another; get the whole child right - emotional, physical, intellectual and that child will turn into an adult who can access what's out there at the level appropriate to that adult. This 'holistic' view pre-supposes that there is some kind of 'core' to our being and that knowledge and learning happens when the core is in a good state. Some people put that the other way round: acquire the knowledge, that'll give you the basis for problem-solving and the sense of well-being and happiness will flow from that. 

Another view says that the only thing that counts is the marketability of the student at 16, 18 or on leaving college, and education should focus entirely and single-mindedly on giving the child and school student marketability. This means tailoring the curriculum and schooling (often seen as a one-off chance) to gearing the child and school student up with marketable skills and knowledge. Anything that looks irrelevant or incidental to this should be got rid of, or discouraged. 

There are many other views or combinations of these and we're in the  midst of the imposition of one particular orthodoxy: that worth in all respects (self-worth, worth to society etc) is acquired through the acquisition of knowledge and that knowledge is identified as being 'the best that has been said and written'...and that has been identified as 'classical' or 'traditional' knowledge ....which (surprising to me) is apparently without cultural bias. Apparently, it is just simply the 'best' and, it's argued, this 'best' stuff has to be taught to everyone so that in particular the 'disadvantaged' get the same stuff as the toffs get , as that is the only way to create 'equality of opportunity' and 'social mobility'. 

My view of this is that even if it's true, this teaching of classic and traditional knowledge goes on in a context - all teaching goes on in a context! - and that this context is just as important as the knowledge itself. The main context in England at this moment is a school system skewed as never before to testing and exams. This has several effects: it determines the shape and quality of the knowledge being passed on - ie it has to come in exam-question chunks. It creates knowledge as being purely and simply of a right/wrong nature. This is no more apparent than in the field of language. Language is a hugely diverse and changing thing - as you might expect, because it is a form of human behaviour. The grammar being taught at primary school at the moment, treats language as a set of acts which must conform to a set of rules, and that parts and functions of language can be named and labelled as incontrovertibly correct. Language isn't like that at all, as it is used in wide range of ways, for very different purposes and changes all the time. The model of treating as right/wrong was devised purely in order to make it fit the testing system. As a result, that particular discipline or form of knowledge is distorted by the testing system and 'wrong knowledge' is dispensed, (e.g. examiners insisting that 'The sun shines bright' is 'wrong' and only 'The sun shines brightly' is 'right'. ( see David Crystal for this particular example.)

The other major effect stemming from context, is that of selection, 'setting' and streaming. In short, the knowledge curriculum is 'hired' to enable the system to constantly sort the school population into categories. This is not, as is claimed, in order to help the low-attaining children and students 'do better' but turns out to be a self-fulfilling prophesy in confirming students in categories - no matter whether they're called e.g. Squirrels Table and Kestrels Table  or whether it's sorting into  'sets', 'streams' or different kinds of schools. Quite clearly, some kinds of school activity are not so easy for using as means to do this kind of selection - let's think, say, of most kinds of shared activity in pairs or bigger groups. I've heard this being called 'confusing' precisely because the children in a pair or group can't be 'disentangled' and given separate grades. But is paired work or group work bad in some way? Aren't there virtues in children learning how to learn together - at least sometimes? 

Another effect linked to this is the proposition that this kind of knowledge curriculum (now locked into the exam-test regime) is best delivered through a particular mode of teaching. At which point, we come to 'Education how?' Having established education as being about the transmission of knowledge to the individual in ways that can be tested in right/wrong exam questions, then it's argued that the kind of knowledge transmission that is best suited to this (though it's usually described as objectively the best way in all conditions) is direct instruction. Various people have laid this out in terms of room arrangement, percentage of time in which the teacher passes on knowledge, to what extent the teacher asks questions, how it is that each child or school student gets to answer those questions (e.g. as individuals raising their hands), the use of positive and negative reinforcement techniques - and so on.  What should be minimised by this 'how', it's argued,  are exploratory, investigatory and discovery methods. It's claimed that these methods disadvantage the disadvantaged because they don't have the cultural capital to engage with those methods, and are quickly confused or resign themselves to not being much good at it. What they need, it's claimed,  is constant, clear, directive teaching which says what's right, what's wrong, and does its best to get the facts over. 

Being a parent has the advantage of seeing how this works out away from school. You get to see the kind of homework your child has that is required to back up this shift to more knowledge, taught 'directly' and whether your children do in fact 'get' it;  what it feels like when they don't, and how a constant regime of practice testing, setting pans out. What happens, as I've suggested, is that the great slabs of knowledge are yoked to a constant background buzz of grading, with spikes of panic when the grading is part of high-stakes testing and/or teacher anxiety to do with inspections and the like. This comes to light in particular on parents' evenings when you, as a parent, sit down in front of a teacher (who I am 100% in sympathy with here, as it's not their 'fault', they didn't create this system) who finds your child's name on a register, runs their finger along a set of grades, reads them out, noting 'dips' and 'improvements' and says to you and your child, what needs to be done to avoid the 'dips'. The child is, then reduced, to data. The data define the child. The child becomes data. The sum worth and purpose of education in that moment is the data. (In fact, it is the teacher's worth and the school's worth too, because the sum of the data is supposedly the sum worth of that teacher to enable the sum of children to get the 'right' grades that sum of children is worth (according to a base line of some sort), and the sum worth of that school to have teachers who can enable the students to collect data at the right level. )

This is just about as far removed from the 'whole child' view of education as it is possible to be. Ironically, at the very moment the private schools put in their mission statements and publicity handouts how proud they are to education the whole child and the whole child's whole personality (etc etc),  the public sector is forced more and more into this marketable-unit kind of education. 

So what is education for? Again, this can't really be asked free of the context in which we find ourselves. Or contexts (plural). One key context is the state of flux in society. We really don't know what society will look like in 10 or 20 years time when today's school pupils will be going off to work - if there is work. We don't know what 'work' will look like for the mass of people. We don't know how those people who are in work that is not fulfilling to the mind or body, will spend their leisure time.  At the core of this is an argument about technology and whether those who own and control  business, will so invest in technology as to remove millions of people from the workplace. The main obstacle for them to do this with a free hand is that the effect of removing millions of people from the workplace, removes millions of people from their wages, which in turn removes them from having the means to buy the products being made by the new technology! 

Meanwhile, there are huge unknowns and insecurities in relation to the UK's relationship to the world. My own view of the argument about Leave or Remain is that these are two competing arguments about how to insure that wages in Britain are kept low. With yet more labyrinthine arguments appearing daily about this or that customs union and single market, the argument seems to me to be even more about how to keep wages low, in order to 'compete for investment'. So, step back for a moment - the great knowledge curriculum, yoked as it is to a hyper-selective, exam-based system, might possibly be useful in a global, macro sense for the country to guarantee that there is a fixed, group at the bottom that never managed to get hold of all that great knowledge, and found over and over again that their test-exam failing (linked to sets, streams and different kinds of schools), leaves them as ideal candidates for those low-paid, unskilled jobs that even technology can't quite get rid of (minding the production line that is packing the products in the huge internet retail depots etc). 

So, we don't really know what world the students are going into, other than that under the present dispensation, a tiny, tiny minority own and control that world. Of course one argument is that school should enable anyone to join that tiny, tiny elite but I can see a problem here: is it really desirable to think of school as a system that is geared up for one or two people to join the elite and for everyone else to fail at doing that? There is an awkward egalitarianism in education and amongst teachers that runs totally against this view of schooling! No matter what is imposed from those who run education, virtually every teacher I've ever met, is trying to do the best for all their pupils. (Of course, the way round this is for our schools to be even more rigidly selective than at present so that the 'doing the best of all their pupils' can be corrupted. In effect, teachers in elite schools do their best for their pupils to be in the elite and the rest do the best they can. It might be argued that the private school system does this anyway, along with a few of the elite grammar schools. Sorted!)

So what are we left with in terms of that question, what is it for? I think it is right to hang on to the idea of the 'whole child', the whole student, no matter how data-driven, test-driven the system is. Our humanity is at stake. We all know that there are activities like putting on a play, running a sports day, producing a magazine and hundreds of others that are outside of this data and testing loop, where we see pupils flourish, find value for themselves, acquire skills and knowledge, learn how to co-operate, work to deadlines that correspond to the kinds of deadlines you meet outside of school, and so on. None of this is trivial. It's deadly serious, no matter how unvalued or undervalued it is by the system. 

It also enables us to get a glimpse of the way things could be - that is, if the balance between formal learning, experimental learning, activities, projects, group work was better. It would also contain within it flexibilities about whatever it is the world is going to hit us with.   

Friday, 11 May 2018

Gérard Genette - a mini-obituary

The great narratologist, Gérard Genette has died. He wrote about how stories, novels, fictions of all kinds are put together or 'told'. He drew attention to the 'intertextual' origins of genre, style, type of fictions and within the fictions he looked at how stories are narrated, how those narrations change and he looked at how fictions deal with time, in a constantly changing way, even as we think we are looking at a 'now'. 

I've drawn on Genette's work in my booklets 'Why Read? Why Write?', 'Writing for Pleasure' and 'Poems and Stories for Primary and Lower Secondary Schools'.

People are very easily put off by 'theory' and feel that it is too abstract and too complicated for every day use. I've tried to break down some of the ideas of narratology and intertextuality in ways that can be used by teachers in primary and secondary schools. My main reason for doing that is not only are these great ways for students to see how the subtle ways in which stories are 'told' (narrated) affects us but that when explained they are great tools for creating new stories, as with say, experimenting with how we narrate, how we 'borrow' from previous stories (intertextuality) and how we can play with time in our writing, creating 'thick' sense of time by moving to and from showing us past and 'continuous' events. 

I hope that someone will do a thorough obituary of Genette. I read his book 'Palimpsestes' when I was doing my Ph.D. and it was a great help. 

Monday, 16 April 2018

The great linguist, M.A.K. Halliday has died.

The great linguist, M.A.K. Halliday has died. His work used to be central to the way secondary English teachers treated language as 'language in use', with an emphasis on how language is part of social existence. Some of it got mis-used (I would argue) by the National Literacy Strategy as 'genre' work, though I'm not against a light-handed use of genre as a way of doing writing in schools. He taught my father linguistics, (as I wrote about jokily in 'So They Call You Pisher!' ) and - to put it crudely - fled the UK, once he realised that the government weren't interested in rational discussion of linguistics as a way of talking about language in schools.

I hope there will be long and thoughtful obituaries to him. We still have much to learn from his work.

Infected with superiority

People who've led lives growing up in suburbs, in comfortable homes, going to schools with glorious playing fields, playing in orchestras, playing in teams, find themselves in power in the parliament of the UK, equipped as it is with rockets and bombs, with a history of strutting across huge areas of the earth's surface, ruling over millions, still talking of 'spheres of influence' and 'our strategic interests', acting as if it is a right and a duty to decide what is or is not a humanitarian crisis, what is or is not the humanitarian crisis that it has to 'respond to', what is or is not the legitimate target to fire rockets and bombs at...and journalists and politicians lower down the food chain, sit and debate the finer points of this as if, yes, the UK does have some special historical valid role to act as one of the world's police, not seeing how deeply corrupting this is, of the country, of them, of us, how infected they are with this sense of superiority over billions of other people...when I watch them on TV talking it's as if this superiority is in their voices, in their eyes, seeped into their skin, like it's so deep in them that we can't actually see it, so we listen to them and watch them as if it's something right and proper and decent when in truth we now it's part of a brutal system of maintaining power and control over regions of the globe and over millions of people, and nothing whatsoever to do with - as they claim - poor, suffering people. Poor, suffering people - millions of whom they make poor and make suffer elsewhere....

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Is Education getting better?

The way to convince people 
that education is getting better 
is to restrict education to what can be tested, 
train teachers (or force them) to teach to the test, and hey presto the results go up! 
But if all that's being taught 
is that which can be tested, 
is it getting better?
If education is leaving out more and more stuff that teachers, students and society thinks 
is valuable, 
then no matter how good the results, 
education isn't getting better is it?

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Writing for pleasure 8 - what have I left out?

It's easy when writing things like this to tie everything up into neat programmes or lists of things to do. I've tried to make clear throughout that whatever I've written here and elsewhere they are for adapting by whoever is reading it. 

There's another aspect to this: there are always bits missed out, an emphasis that was skewed, points that were not made, so this last section is a kind of rag-bag of thoughts about what comes before.

1. All writing is helped by reading. The more that pupils read, the easier it is for them to write. The more widely they read, the easier it is for them to write. This is no mystery: writing involves us assembling words and structures in the writing-way-of-doing-language. By reading, we put into our heads the structures that belong to writing. We use these in order to write. This means that any way in which we can get every pupil reading for pleasure is a fantastic way to improve writing. There are now online and in books many suggestions for how to carry out a whole school policy on reading for pleasure. 

2. Much of what I've written here has put forward suggestions for 'processes' in which the process in question has been 'structured'. Only occasionally, have I dispensed with that and suggested freer ways of writing. I don't want to minimise this. When you have a group who are reading a lot, talking about what they're reading, and, say, performing poems or reading each other's stories, there'll be plenty of times when all we need to do is provide an open trigger or stimulus: a piece of music, a clip from a film, a walk in the snow. There'll be times in the midst of production of a magazine, when the need of the moment - to have a write-up of that netball game, to have a review of the latest album by 'x', and that job has to be done straightaway. These much more spontaneous ways of producing writing are no less valid than any of the more structured ones that I've suggested. What's more, the methods of one can feed into the other. Any writer will tell you, that part of writing is to have moments of 'inspiration' that arise out of daydreaming, walking, looking out of the window, and other parts come from having to write for a deadline, taking instructions from editors about what to take out and what to put in (often based on the expectations of genre - a form of modelling, if you like - imitation-invention!). We need both.

3. The different sections of this 'Writing for Pleasure' series are intended to be influencing and affecting each other: collecting, investigating, imitating, inventing and distributing. In any given day or week or year, it's not that one should come before another. The idea is that are all going on simultaneously: informing and helping each other. 

4. You can take any part of this series - or all of it - and use it for school-based research. You can think of any part of it as an 'intervention' and you can observe/analyse yourself teaching it, observe/analyse the pupils responding to that intervention, observe/analyse the writing that comes out of it, observe/analyse other teachers', parents' reactions to the outcomes. This is what we do at Goldsmiths in our term 'Children's Literature in Action' as part of our MA in Children's Literature.  I supervise teachers, librarians or people working in arts and education doing these kinds of studies. The 'matrix' in my booklet 'Poetry and Stories in Primary and Lower Secondary Schools' is for teachers to use as a way of analysing pupils' responses to literature. I would recommend anyone reading this series and trying out any of the ideas to set up some kind of research or monitoring arrangement. Everyone involved will benefit from such work. 

5. Some of the best work I've seen has arisen from 'whole school texts'. This is where a staff agree on a text that can work for the whole school to interpret in different ways: to read, discuss, investigate, write responses to, stories around, reviews, make videos, do art work, look at the history of the writer and/or work and/or culture it came from. I saw Ranelagh School in Newham do this with 'The Tempest' and there was work from nursery to Year 6 on this taking episodes and scenes from the play, modern versions writing their  own, doing  performances, paintings, building islands and so on. And the children were sharing their work with each other and with parents. 

Writing for Pleasure 7 Distribution


An important, significant part of this whole process is what we do with whatever it is the pupils write. Traditionally, most of what is written goes into exercise books, which are sent to teachers who then mark them and hand them back. This means in terms of distribution this kind of writing only gets an audience of one, and that audience is not reading that piece for the prime reason of pleasure but of correcting it, and/or helping the writer develop/get better etc.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong per se with this, but there is a problem to my mind, if  this is the main or only channel for helping a writer get better. Imagine instead, if we thought of a school which can behave most of the time as if it's a 'commissioning' body: it commissions writing from pupils so that it can be published and/or performed. The job of the school, then, would be to use as many different forms for the pupils' work as possible: on the print front that would include (as it does in many schools anyway) wall magazines, blogs, school bulletins, booklets, pamphlets, books in the library, books on sale at school fetes and parents' evenings. On the performance front that would include class performances and readings, performances by older to younger pupils and vice versa, whole school performances, parent-teacher-pupil joint performances, videos, powerpoint with audio performances, talking books etc and 'performance' could be made an important part of the informal curriculum so that it's studied. 

Of course, under present conditions with so much testing, I realise that making this an objective is extremely hard. Yet where and when it happens, teachers can vouch for the fact that what is written ends up being read over and over again by other pupils (good for reading then!) and those who write have many reasons for 'getting things right' or 'improving the writing' - they want people to read and like what they read. 

Performance has the power of interpretation on its side. With every act of preparing a piece for performance, the performer has to interpret what's been written. They have to decide on tone, rhythm, volume and movement and whether it does or does not fit the writing in question. This will involve talk and debate whether things are working right, and following performances, discussions can be focussed on what can we learn from each other, what did we see in that performance that we can try out ourselves.

The overall effect of seeing writing as a form of commissioning for publication and performance is that it starts to affect what is written, and how. Consider for example the strange fact that though film, TV and radio are massively important media for us in society, the curriculum downgrades or ignores the writing of scripts for performance. Why should, say, writing a story be any more important in status than writing a script of a story that is performed in front of an audience? Why is this sort of activity usually restricted to Christmas and end-of-year shows? If pupils are now writing stories and poems on computers, it's comparatively easy to turn these into blogs, online magazines and the like. There's no problem about restricting who can see these because there are always buttons which control this. This way an audience for the pupils' writing can be widened only so far as the school decides.

Again, in the area of non-fiction, this kind of written output can encourage the writing of reviews of books, films and song albums, reports of sports matches, school trips, debates and opinion columns. As with all writing, there are ways to make these better and raise their status as important ways to write. In so doing, this kind of writing becomes much less abstract. There is a built-in need to interest audiences which invites debate about what makes for an interesting/exciting/funny report or review? This can take us back to examples in the press to imitate and use for invention. 

This is what was always called 'writing for purpose'. The digital media have made it comparatively easy to achieve this. And there's an added educational dimension to this. We constantly hear from ministers and the DfE about how education is supposed to equipping pupils for their later lives. Part of that is surely using whatever means are available to us to publish and distribute. Our phones, tablets and computers are massively powerful ways for us to disseminate ideas and by using them in schools, we can show pupils of all ages that they can be used for  many different ways of communicating with each other. 

Crucial to all this, then is that we involve the pupils in the 'means of production' - that they are part of the process of making the books, audio, video, websites, blogs etc., so that they learn how to do that as part of the process of writing. Writing isn't just a matter of putting words on the page. It's a matter of making writing part of a loop that includes real readers and getting involved in questions about how we get the writing to the reader, does just this.  Where some pupils may not want to perform their work, others can do that, and the non-performer can perhaps be more involved in the 'means of production' side, should that be appropriate. 

This matter of 'distribution', then,  helps us achieve the aim of creating reading-writers and writing-readers, or as I would add in: reading-performing-writers and writing-performing-readers. 

Even if what I've described here is unrealisable across a whole year, perhaps it can be achieved in times when, say, the curriculum can be suspended for a day or a week, or a fortnight perhaps after SATs, or the like. We could think of, say, a publication-performance week and a whole school goes flat out in getting all these different things made, done and 'out there'. Why not?