Archive for June, 2009

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Wilful Stupidity

June 18, 2009

Students often pretend to be less bright than they are. Here are two accounts of this:

“Some time ago, in an article on race stereotypes, I read something that stuck in my mind but that only recently has seemed to have anything to do with children.

The author spent some time in a German concentration camp during the war. He and his fellow prisoners, trying to save both their lives and something of their human dignity, and to resist, despite their impotence, the demands of their jailers, evolved a kind of camp personality as a way of dealing with them. They adopted an air of amiable dullwittedness, of smiling foolishness, of cooperative and willing incompetence—like the good soldier Schweik. Told to do something, they listened attentively, nodded their heads eagerly, and asked questions that showed they had not understood a word of what had been said. When they could not safely do this any longer, they did as far as possible the opposite of what they had been told to do, or did it, but as badly as they dared. They realized that this did not much impede the German war effort, or even the administration of the camp; but it gave them a way of preserving a small part of their integrity in a hopeless situation…

Does not something very close to this happen often in school? Children are subject peoples. School for them is a kind of jail. Do they not, to some extent, escape and frustrate the relentless, insatiable pressure of their elders by withdrawing the most intelligent and creative parts of their minds from the scene? Is this not at least a partial explanation of the extraordinary stupidity that otherwise bright children so often show in school? The stubborn and dogged “I don’t get it” with which they meet the instructions and explanations of their teachers—may it not be a statement of resistance as well as one of panic and flight?

I think this is almost certainly so. Whether children do this consciously and deliberately depends on the age and character of the child. Under pressure that they want to resist but don’t dare to resist openly, some children may quite deliberately go stupid; I have seen it and felt it.”

Holt (1965)

“To one very distinguished individual, my own personal debt is infinite; I mean, the historian of the Indian Mutiny and of the campaigns of Caesar–Mr. T. Rice Holmes.  He managed, heaven knows how, to penetrate through my deep and desperately consolidated desire to appear stupid; and discover the horrible secret that I was, after all, endowed with the gift of reason above the brutes. He would suddenly ask me questions a thousand miles away from the subject at hand, and surprise me into admitting that I had heard of the Song of Roland, or even read a play or two of Shakespeare. Nobody who knows anything of the English schoolboy at that date will imagine that there was at the moment any pleasure in such prominence or distinction.  We were all hag-ridden with a horror of showing off, which was perhaps the only coherent moral principal we possessed. There was one boy, I remember, who was so insanely sensitive on this point of honour, that he could hardly bear to hear one of his friends answer an ordinary question right.  He felt that his comrade really ought to have invented some mistake, in the general interest of comradeship. When my information about the French epic was torn from me, in spite of my efforts, he actually put his head in his desk and dropped the lid on it, groaning in a generous and impersonal shame and faintly and hoarsely exclaiming, “Oh, shut it. … Oh, shut up!”  He was an extreme exponent of the principle; but it was a principle which I fully shared.  I can remember running to school in sheer excitement repeating militant lines of “Marmion” with passionate emphasis and exultation; and then going into class and repeating the same lines in the lifeless manner of a hurdy-gurdy, hoping that there was nothing whatever in my intonation to indicate that I distinguished between the sense of one word and another.

…I am not sorry to be an exception to the modern tendency to reproach the old Victorian schoolmaster with stupidity and neglect and to represent the rising generation as a shining band of Shelleys inspired by light and liberty to rise. The truth is that in this case it was I who exhibited the stupidity; though I really think it was largely an affected stupidity. And certainly it was I who rejoiced in the neglect, and who asked for nothing better than to be neglected.  It was, if anything, the authorities who dragged me, in my own despite, out of the comfortable and protected atmosphere of obscurity and failure. Personally, I was perfectly happy at the bottom of the class.”

Chesterton (1936)

It is incredible how the same behaviour can be interpreted in two utterly different ways. Holt, was a radical educationalist sometimes described as a de-schooler, who saw all the ordinary faults of children as being caused by the nature of school as an institution. Inevitably, for any “progressive” the possibility that the bad behaviour of children could result from bad motives was not to be considered. To such a man it would be far more reasonable to consider schools to be concentration camps than to consider students to be flawed, imperfect, human beings.

Chesterton has the advantage on this topic of not looking at children from the outside and explaining what he sees, but actually recalling what he thought as a child. Some people apparently cannot recall what it was like to be a child. I remember quite clearly from my own schooldays that laziness and a desire not to stand out from the crowd were all that it took to make me display unnecessary dullness. A search for dignity under the oppression of teachers was not necessary; like all children I was far more oppressed by the expectations of my peers than those of my teachers.

Teaching experience has taught me the same thing. Those students who already have high status among their peers are quite happy to also appear bright, while those who don’t have the status don’t want to stand out academically. All students are happy to appear to be clever when separated from other students; children who would never want their peers to know their achievements are quite happy to be told privately, or for their parents to be informed. In front of their peers it is important to appear unexceptional. Worse, for those students who genuinely are unexceptional, it is important to appear satisfied with, or even proud of, this.

It comes down to culture. A lot of schools, even good schools, have a culture of wilful stupidity. It does not pay to appear too bright or too keen. Usually, you can see the loser culture take hold at some point during year 7, becoming stronger and stronger until late in year 10 or in year 11 when the imminent prospect of an encounter with the real world suddenly makes mediocrity less attractive. As ever, British schools see themselves as the passive (almost pacifist) recipients of such a culture. The loser culture is either accepted, or if it is challenged, it must never be confronted by anything more than the use of half-hearted incentives. The possibility of all-out war on low academic aspirations would never be considered. Too many of the things that would be necessary to create a culture of high intellectual aspirations are ideologically unacceptable. To challenge the loser culture you would need:

  • Open academic competition between students;
  • Setting;
  • Firm rules against discouraging other students from trying;
  • Harsh punishments for poor effort;
  • Exclusion or isolation of non-learners and those who prevent others from learning.

As things stand students often know that:

  • They will never be publicly compared with each other on academic grounds;
  • Mediocrity will be concealed in the wide ability range within a class;
  • All opinions, even those which incite failure, are welcome;
  • The worst sanction available for a half-hearted effort is a poor grade;
  • Learning is an aim that can be sacrificed in order to “include” everybody.

As students know these things, they have very little motive to appear clever and every motive to be exactly as dull and lazy as the next child. By the time they learn that what is perceived as merely mediocre in a bad school is going to be perceived as gross stupidity out in the real world it is too late. Wilful stupidity in school will translate into personal failure outside of school. Unfortunately, wilful stupidity is something those who run schools seem more than satisfied with.

References

Chesterton, G.K., Autobiography, 1936

Holt, John, How Children Fail, Pitman Publishing, 1965

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Charlie and the Inclusive Chocolate Factory

June 11, 2009

Even after four decades Roald Dahl’s classic children’s book “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”remains incredibly popular. However, its moral universe is drastically at odds with those of our schools. this has now been rectified, and below, I present a new, updated end for the book:

 

“Which room shall it be next?” said Mr Wonka as he turned away and darted into the lift. “Come on! Hurry up! We must get going! And how many children are there left now?”

Little Charlie looked at Grandpa Joe, and Grandpa Joe looked back at little Charlie.

“But Mr Wonka,” Grandpa Joe called after him, “there’s only Charlie left now.”

Mr Wonka swung round and stared at Charlie.

There was a silence. Charlie stood there holding tightly on to Grandpa Joe’s hand.

“You mean you’re the only one left?” Mr Wonka said, pretending to be surprised.

“Why, yes,” whispered Charlie. “Yes.”

Mr Wonka suddenly exploded with excitement “But my dear boy,” he cried out, “that means you’ve lost!

“I don’t understand.” said Charlie.

“Of course you don’t!” said Mr Wonka, excitedly. “Listen. I’m an old man. I’m much older than you think. I wanted my legacy to be that I’d give away my factory to badly behaved children in order to help them with their special needs. However, unlike the other four children you don’t seem to have any problems at all, so you’re not getting anything.”

“B-b-but…” stammered Grandpa Joe, “what problems did those awful children have?”

“Oh dear, oh dear,” said Mr Wonka, “we won’t have any of that labelling here. Listen and I will explain. Mike Teavee may have seemed disinterested in other human beings and to have an unhealthy interest in guns and violence. However, this really only indicates a short attention span and hyperactivity. The poor boy is ill with ADHD and unrestricted access to a chocolate factory can only help him with his affliction.”

“I don’t believe I’m hearing this”, said Grandpa Joe.

“As for Violet Beauregarde, her continual chewing of gum was clearly a form of obsessive behaviour. That, and her lack of social awareness about what to do with discarded gum, strikes me as clear evidence that she is somewhere on the autistic spectrum.”

“For pity’s sake” whispered Charlie.

“I suppose you’ll be telling us that Veruca Salt has a special need next.” said Grandpa Joe. “All that spoilt girl needed was a good slap.”

“How dare you?” cried Mr Wonka. “Anybody who slaps a child is worse than Hitler! You should have noticed that poor Veruca was suffering from a terrible anger management problem.”

“What about Augustus Gloop?” asked Charlie. “He was greedy and fat. How does that make him deserve a chocolate factory?”

“Ah-ha!” cried Mr Wonka, “That dear child was clearly suffering from poor self-esteem. I hate to think what torment he was going through.”

“This is ridiculous” said Grandpa Joe. “None of those children had real problems. Charlie, on the other hand, has been sleeping on the floor his entire life, and has been eating nothing but bread and cabbage for six months. He’s starving. Isn’t that a real hardship you could help with?”

“Don’t be silly” said Mr Wonka. “Charlie may look like a skeleton but he has been polite and well-behaved throughout this trip. He clearly can’t have any real problems. Now, off you go! I have to take the other, more troubled children to the Great Glass Student Support Department where a thousand Oompa-Loompas will help them with their needs by catering to their every whim.”

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The School’s on Fire

June 4, 2009

Year 11 are still here. Other schools have long since let their students go. But due to the chronic (and worsening) attendance problem the Metropolitan School can’t afford to let year 11 affect our attendance figures any more than they have already. Of course, in their hearts they know they should have already gone and as a result they are turning up in jeans, and instead of going to lessons they stand around in corridors playing a gambling game which involves throwing money at the wall.

Sometimes, like this morning, a few year 11 students accidentally turn up for a lesson. This causes all sorts of confusion. For instance, today my class of five Year 11s thought they were meant to sit around a table chatting about the Prom. Unfortunately I had planned to teach them a few things they need to know in order to pass their GCSE exam. Conflict was inevitable. I am glad to say I only had to get one girl, Rochelle, removed from the class. She repeatedly refused to cooperate with even the most basic instructions. While we waited for Call-Out to come and get her, the other students were keen to explain that it’s not surprising Rochelle wouldn’t do what she’d been told. No punishments of any kind were being applied to Year 11s at the moment. I pointed out that as far as I knew students had been excluded as recently as two weeks ago.

Rochelle spoke up “Do you mean me? I didn’t get excluded.”

“I’m sure you did, That’s what your Year Head told me. I’ll just look it up.”

Sure enough when I looked it up Rochelle hadn’t had an exclusion for an incident a couple of weeks ago. Yes, she had thrown her work on the floor. She had told me: “Fuck off, I’m not doing it”. Her acting Year Head, Jenny Goodyear, had told me she had a two-day exclusion. However, both Rochelle and the computer were telling me this hadn’t happened.

Not long after Call-Out had arrived and removed her (with some arguing) from the class, Clay Broadmoor turned up at door.

“Have you heard? The school’s on fire.”

“Really? Well you’d better get to your lesson before anyone thinks you started it.”

“I’m not going to my lesson. The science block’s on fire”.

Clay eventually left. The lesson ended and I sent my class out for break. A minute later an email arrived saying “Don’t let your classes out because of an incident in the science block”.

Some of my students returned. The order came through eventually for all year 10 and 11 students to go to the hall. (Other years went to a different part of the school). The science block was on fire. The students were to be released to go home. However, their parents would each have to be contacted by a member of staff first. Now we just had to explain this to a hall full of year 10 and year 11 students.

This proved to be impossible. As soon as the words “go home” had been uttered there was pandemonium. First there was loud and protracted cheering, followed by the out break of some kind of fight. Staff with mobile phones lined up to make the calls but students were impatient. Why should they have to wait? Students attempted to make their own phone calls or attempted to make a break through the fire escape (about 15 succeeded).

I had the misfortune to be right near the main door. Inevitably, for an hour, I was the bouncer on the door. Nobody else seemed to want this job. No member of SMT came over to do it. No Head of Year or Head of Department took an interest. No teacher who had been at the school longer than me gave me a break. As ever, by attempting to enforce the rules, I had taken on sole responsibility for a massive task. Most of the time I simply had to let out kids who’d been given a note by a member of staff or let in kids who hadn’t made it to the hall in the first place because they’d been wandering the school grounds as an alternative to lessons. Unfortunately, I was also confronted by the kids who couldn’t wait their turn. One gang of large students attempted to charge through me, and when I held my ground and shouted at them to sit down they just shouted back at me or told me my breath stunk. Chanel from my year 10 class came up to me, held her nose to indicate that she thought I smelt. (Yes, barely three hours since I’d had a bath and brushed my teeth I was being accused of both having body odour and bad breath. If you are at all familiar with children you’ll know that anybody who inconveniences them has bad breath, a body odour problem, a history of homosexuality and a fat mother. If you are familiar with teaching you’ll know that this kind of abuse is no longer only student to student but aimed at staff on a daily basis.) When I asked to see her note she told me to “fuck off” and then showed me her note anyway.

Eventually we got them all out. We all went back to our rooms to work. We wouldn’t be going home early, but four lessons being cancelled is a teacher’s dream come true.

It turns out it was three Year 9 students who set the fire. I’m amazed they found anywhere in the school to do this that wasn’t already full of truanting year 11s. Only one of them was a child whom I teach, but another was a boy who used to pop into my lesson occasionally to verbally abuse me. As it happens just two days before I had emailed Miss Rush, their year head, to tell her that these two boys were running around the corridors causing trouble. As it also happens there had been no reply and you can be pretty sure nothing was done about them.

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