One of the occupational hazards of being a teacher is disillusionment. The disillusionment that I experienced was something dating from the last years of my teaching career, I began to question the value of what I was doing. Teaching A level sociology was increasingly about cramming as much of the course content as possible into two short years. At best I was giving them an insight into the society in which they lived, but at worst to my teaching threatened to turn into a recitation of the facts, as were required by the exam system. Neglect of the latter would have meant, I and they would be judged failures.
English education as I experienced it can be described as ‘throwing as much information as possible at the student hoping that some of it sticks’. Quantity is confused with quality. I am a committed supporter of slow education. There has to be another way of delivering education, a way of teaching that ensures the student develops an understanding of the subject. Not that this is something new and revolutionary. When I was undertaking teacher training in the early 1970’s ‘patch teaching’ of history was in vogue. Rather than a liner course that was literally a run through of world history. Focus would be instead on particular patches of history in depth. In that way they would develop an in depth understanding of the subject. Michael Gove disliked this method of teaching and returned to subject to a history of great Britons. What I am advocating is not new, this is the discovery approach to learning advocated in the Plowden Report 1967 and Rousseau’s ‘Emile’ 1763 and Plato’s ‘Meno’ 4BCE. Education that takes the child as it’s starting point, rather than the subject, as is now the favoured approach.
I can cite Conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott as part of my evidence to demonstrate the superiority of slow over quick education. Education he said should be the initiation of the student into new areas of experience. What he meant was that students should be inducted into a new of thinking or understanding. He believed subjects such as history had a distinct identity or essence. Only through an i immersion into a subject area would enable the student to grasp its essence. Although he did not state it as such, he was an advocate of a liberal education. A good education would involve the student being initiated into a number of distinct but overlapping educational experiences. Quick fire education of the type so popular in England will not give students the experience of education that Michael Oakshott wanted for them.
Recent changes to the national education curriculum have put limits on what is taught or certain subjects off limits. Universities have been discouraged from offering modern languages on the dubious basis that they are not self financing. Not the approach to education envisaged by this most conservative of philosophers.
Nietzsche’s criticisms of German grammar schools in the 19th century are worth considering as they add to the understanding of what bad education might be. These schools all taught the same set of facts or understandings with which there teachers had been rehearsed in at institutes of higher learning. Nothing too challenging for the students or teachers was taught in these schools. German education was focused on teaching conformity. Round pegs for round holes, no difficult square pegs. They produced generation after generation of unthinking intellectual sheep, the untermensch.
Contemporary English education would earn Nietszche’s strictures. It is a system that seeks to discourage intellectual curiosity and the love of learning. The real villain of the piece is the English exam system. A system that values mediocrity. When doing supply teaching I taught Macbeth through the use of a comic book. Macbeth can be reduced to an exciting story, but was taught is not Shakespeare’s Macbeth. English Standard Attainment Tests required that all English students demonstrated a knowledge of Shakespeare, the greatest of all English playwrights. Given that it was a test to be undertaken by all fourteen year olds it had to be rendered in a form all could understand. The comic book had the advantage of providing students a number of simple facts that could be easily learnt and memorised for an exam in which students demonstrated there knowledge of Shakespeare. Whatever was being taught was not Shakespeare. Not only facts but the demonstration of government preferred writing formats were required to pass the SAT’s. Government diktat is stifling in students in any love they may have for this most creative of subjects. It is not surprising that having done their best to destroy a love of the English language and literature, there has been a marked fall in the number of students studying this subject at university.
The real villain of the piece is the exam system, it forces the education curriculum into a learning straight jacket. Creativity or going beyond the limits as specified by the minister earns no points from the education ministry and as it was not in their curriculum it can lead to a downgrading of a school. Too much creativity or pupil enlightenment can lead to the imposition of sanctions by the ministry.
When teaching economics in the 1970s, I used to teach my students about the command economy in the Soviet Union. It was not on the curriculum, but I then had the freedom to go off course with my teaching. The interesting thing is that then the government in Moscow tried to set the direction in which the economy moved, it did so through setting out global or quantitive targets for each sector of the economy. To ensure that central directives were met they had the KGB who would sanction those politicians managers who failed to fulfil their quotas. Sanction being a spell in a labour camp. Consequently local politicians and factory managers conspired together to give the appearance of meeting their targets. If the target for shoe production could only be met by producing left handed shoes (productivity increased if all workers made exactly the same product) that is what had to be done. All politicians up to the level of the capital city were in on the act, as failure to comply with centrally set targets meant a spell in the labour camp.
I feel the current education system in the way it is administered threatens to produce the equivalent of left handed shoes in education. Nick Gibbs the education minister insisted that a rigorous grammar component was added to primary school curriculum. He was little more qualified to write a course in grammar, that the Moscow politician was to direct the production of shoes in the distant Urals. Educationalists have accused this man of making up principles of grammar to teach students. One such make up grammar was the adverbial. A term unknown to grammar specialists at university and certainly to teachers.
Ministers of education have found setting of quantitive targets, such as demanding that a certain percentage of students to get a particular level in the SATs, is the ideal way to control the how and what of teaching in schools. From my reading of educational practice and philosophy, never did I ever come across ease of central control of schools as an objective.
The dead hand of exams is choking the life out of the education system. Politicians boast of the rigour of the English exam system. Every year steps are taken by ministers to ensure that only a small intellectual elite are awarded the best grades. A levels are the gold standard of education. What they never admit is that public exams are designed to make the majority fail. Only an A grade qualifies you for entry to the elite universities. Despite being called passes, grade B or less are in reality fail grades. I cannot see any merit in an education system that is designed to make the majority fail. This is the moral rottenness at the heart of the English educational system.
Grading students from A to E, 8 to 1 or from a First to a pass degree is not part of education. It’s a sorting system for employment or higher education. It’s main purpose is to make life easier for admissions tutors at university or employers. Unfortunately contemporary society insists on school and universities sorting students into various categories of person, so schools and universities cannot escape there sorting role. The only solution is to relegate this sorting function to a minor role in the curriculum, so ensuring that education takes the central place in the school or university curriculum.
3 thoughts on “Reflections on the education system from a retired teacher (or more accurately its failings)”
I agree with your final paragraph entirely
I agree with your final paragraph almost entirely. I suppose one justification for examinations is that the sorting process might be arbitrary if it relied entirely on teacher judgement, which might be subject to conscious or unconscious bias. A successful examination might open a gateway to further studies or employment that a teacher’s view might block – although in any cases, examinations are biased towards the very kind of students that teachers and society might wish to encourage. The whole system does tell children at a very early stage that societies are unequal and that grading is a way of excluding most from the most lucrative credentialled occupations. And it does provide some justification, blaming children and/or their parents for “failure”, even at primary school age.
Written examinations are a flawed way of assessing knowledge. those that are knowledgeable, and have developed understanding, may well succeed in such assessments. But, sometimes this is not the case – students may lack exam technique, or have perspectives that diverge from those that have set these assessments. It is also possible that those who do lack knowledge and understanding, by judicious use of exam technique and bluffing, can somehow be successful, in some subjects. I have come across research that attempted to assess whether students who did well in examinations had retained their knowledge or understood their subject, and found that substantial numbers seemed to have forgotten most of what they had learnt, in what is a short-term memory test. Worse, many failed to understand the most basic concepts that underlay their assessments. I had evidence of this teaching modules that assumed a level of prior knowledge from earlier modules that students had “passed”, in some cases with excellent grades. Nevertheless, when i was teaching the application of that knowledge, many displayed lamentable understanding or the retention of prior knowledge, and when challenged, always told me “well, that was last year – you can’t expect us to remember!”
One justification for the carrying out of assessments is that the assessment itself provides useful experience – perhaps the undergraduate dissertation could be an example. But written examinations provide no useful experience. How many of us will, in work or elsewhere, need to sit in a silent room with a swishing pen, reading questions set by someone else, and trying to write essays against the clock, without any reference to backing material? I cannot recall ever having to do so. What is assessed is, fundamentally, the ability to succeed in passing assessments like that. How useful that is, to students or to those with whom they might deal, is a moot point. It does mean, though, that those whose families can afford to have children and students cached can assure their passage to elite universities, from which they can impose the same process on others.
I could go on, but I will just add that, since retirement, I have engaged in short adult education courses in literature, politics and history. I know of others who have entered fully-fledged courses that end in assessments. My gut feeling has always been that, if there was any form of grading assessment, I would have nothing to do with such a course, because the assessment would come to dominate its content. (Just possibly, for a tutor to cast an eye over an essay might be acceptable, but never to grade it). So, I sometimes feel that one can have education, or one can have assessment.
Thank you Joseph for your comment. I agree with what you write. It’s a pity that we as retired educational professionals have no input on current educational thinking.