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Attitudes Which Cause Dumbing Down

January 3, 2013

Every so often, people simply try to deny that there is a problem within our education system of low expectations. The following are examples, often from highly respected figures or able individuals, of expectations which are in my view blatantly below where we should expect them to be. Remember that all of these examples are from people who apparently had no shame about making these attitudes public and I recommend that you follow the links to look at the context.

1) Maths teacher tells a student working at A grade (before the introduction of A* grades) in maths and further maths) not to be as keen to get into Cambridge.

From the TES :

“Apart from you, Michael, who cares what you get in your A level?” I ask, firmly.
His Bambi eyes look at me in a bewildered way, as if he has just seen me kick a puppy.
“I mean, I care, of course,” I add, swiftly. “But what is better: to go to Cambridge with three As and hate it or to go to Bangor with three Cs and love it?”

2) Teacher thinks it really important to tell students, at the age of 12, not to be concerned about whether they make it to university.

From this teacher blog (okay, I admit this is a teacher in Scotland not England but plenty of teachers in England retweeted this as if it was good advice):

In August, thirty twelve year old kids will arrive in my class, embarking on their Secondary school education. Fresh from Primary school, they will no doubt be filled with a mix of nerves and expectation. So, if one of them was the twelve year-old me, what advice would I give myself? Here goes… In a couple of years, your teachers and parents will start to obsess about University. Don’t sweat it so much. It ain’t the be all and end all. You’ll go, eventuallY, if you really want to. Your friends will get caught up in that and end up in, for the most part, mundane jobs. Don’t think you are inferior if you don’t go to Uni at 17. You probably will hate it then anyway.

3) Headteacher describes the level he thinks is good enough for a grade C in English.

From a headteacher’s blog:

But I know what a C in English looks like; I know what you have to do to achieve it; …After all, to get a C you essentially only need to do be able to do three things: write using paragraphs; write using mostly accurate sentences and spelling; and be boring. If you stop being boring you move to a B or higher.

(This was part of the ongoing campaign to lower the boundaries in English GCSE which in itself is an outrageous attempt to dumb down, but I think this example particularly demonstrates the low expectations behind that campaign.)

4) Blogger (whose past and present positions include consultant, head of department and OFSTED inspector) attacks academic education.

From this blog:

[I] would therefore like to suggest that at present we simply cannot afford for so many students to pursue the luxury of an academic education that in many cases leads to nothing more than high rates of graduate unemployment. …. Your Country Needs You – not to become an academic!

5) Education website suggests Year 11s (i.e. students aged 15 or 16) revise Hitler’s rise to power using Mr Men cartoons.

From this history teaching website:

Prior to this activity, Year 11 students should have finished studying the Rise of Hitler. They should then spend classroom time discussing in pairs and groups how they could transform the narrative into a ‘Mr. Men’ story that younger students would be able to understand.

The following steps are a useful framework:

Brainstorm the key people involved (Hitler, Hindenburg, Goering, Van der Lubbe, Rohm…). Discuss their personalities / actions in relation to the topic. Bring up a picture of the Mr. Men characters on the board. Discuss which characters are the best match.

UPDATE 24/3/2013:

Had to add this one. Staggering.

A-level English taught by getting students to draw pictures on paper plates.

From this blog.

1- Students are asked to find descriptions of their character in their books and depict their character on the paper plate- aim for them to draw a face but sometimes a full body is more appropriate.

2- They then take 4 white stickers and on each of them, write one of their character’s key traits.

3- They then stick their white stickers on their clothes and go around the room, mingling with all the other characters and introducing themselves in character.

4- They then take a large piece of paper, stick on their paper plate and stickers and find as many quotes that relate to their character as they can, adding notes about why the quote is important.

5- The posters are displayed somewhere, in this case, the corridor. Students peruse the information and add key character notes to their record sheets.

Creative, active and fun! My kind of activity!

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41 comments

  1. Thank you for mentioning my blog here. I am extremely honored. Perhaps I should point out that, even in the extract you have quoted, I stated that going to Uni AT SEVENTEEN was not the be-all and the end-all. I never said that not going to Uni AT ALL was something which should worry them.
    Perhaps not pressuring kids at 12 might.., oh never mind.

    Kenny Pieper


  2. Ok, why is the last example dumbing down? Just take a moment to think through what the students are likely to be discussing. That’s where the consolidation of learning happens.

    Would you have felt better about it if the teacher had asked them to cast actors? Or write a playscript? Or storyboard a cartoon from scratch? Is it the Mister Men bit that dumbs it down for you? The task was nothing more than a means to end – it looks relatively simple, but some quite complex thinking and knowledge recall would have to happen for this task to be successful.


    • You really don’t think it is an utterly trite pastime ?

      Plus it’s fairly insulting to the victims of Nazi Germany and trivialises the whole thing.

      “Oh here is Mr Hitler with his silly moustache, and Little Miss Eva”.


      • Have you never heard of satire? While I accept that using Mr Men may be ‘a bit trite’ it’s kids we’re talking about here. Bright ones will be able to create satire (it’s no coincidence that the best comics are also well-educated), those less so will not.


    • Perhaps there is something rather distasteful about Hitler and his followers being equated with fluffy children’s book characters. Somehow the idea of genocide being planned by Mr Happy and his mates doesn’t quite have the resonance of one set of humans planning to eradicate an entire race of their fellow humans.

      I am astounded that you find nothing wrong with this.


      • See my reply above.


        • So the bright ones recognise it is essentially distasteful but develop the ability to turn it into a satire – whereas the majority of the class take it on the good authority of the teacher that such a task is in fact appropriate and in good taste. And that’s acceptable?

          You cannot possibly justify such a ridiculous task by saying that a minority of the class gain from it something which wasn’t actually intended in the first place.


          • I think this activity is in context, bearing in mind that the students will have covered the Nazification of textbooks and methods used by the Nazis to spread propaganda among children as part of the regime.

            I also think that the OP isn’t questioning whether the activity is in good taste, but instead focusing on this task as a mechanism for dumbing down student learning; therefore perhaps discussions about its appropriateness would be better raised with the website owner. Or, y’know, don’t choose to use it in your classroom.

            Re-packaging information for a different audience is widely considered to be good practice for revision and improving knowledge recall, isn’t it? Is it that opinion you are contesting here, Andrew?


    • Do you not think the lesson time could be better used to develop a deeper, more detailed understanding rather than this activity, which seems difficult to extend beyond the superficial?


      • I’m afraid I dislike (almost) the entire “activities” agenda that infantilises students in my sector, A-Level. It’s not just the offensive and trivial nature of this egregious example that concerns me, but the whole philosophy that says kids can only understand something if they “do an activity”, from writing a song to constructing an actual model (from pipecleaners) of a theory of memory because of a teacher’s misunderstanding over the meaning of “model”. This sort of thing absolutely does not guarantee understanding and can in fact be quite misleading. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any of these ersatz substitutes for true learning make any real difference.


  3. Such a disappointing post. Whilst I disagree that all of these are examples of so called “dumbing down” (which is a contentious statement in its own right), I primarily object to you scouring the web to pick on teachers who dare to risk sharing their thoughts in public and twist their words to support your argument.


  4. What’s quite astonishing about the first one is that he then goes on to say that “Uni Maths depts will be fighting over you”. Not if he gets three C’s, I would argue.

    If you put your views in the public domain you can’t complain if they attract comment as long as they are not educated or decontextualised.


  5. While I usually applaud and concur with your posts, I find this one rather bewildering. Specifically 2 … schools DO need to do more to bring down the culture that going to university is everything. That has led us into a situation where daft courses are invented to mop up swathes of academically unsuitable applicants. Neither of my children “went to university” and they are doing very well thank you (a nurse and a road engineer).


    • It’s true, but the poster’s opinion was that university students are likely to end up in mundane jobs and actually hate university (if they go at 17, which is hardly emphasised). What a damagingly one-sided opinion to convey to 12 year olds. I know this wasn’t an exact transcript, but it should at least be more balanced.

      I’m sure plenty of people who don’t go to university end up in mundane jobs too, but they’re not in the position of informing students whether or not it’s a wise decision to get caught up in the university hype.


      • ‘the poster’s opinion was that university students are likely to end up in mundane jobs and actually hate university’

        Please read the post. Show me where I say this. (sigh.)


        • True, I did read it before I posted but misunderstood. Correct me if I’m wrong – it’s specifically to your 12 year old self, so you’re making the point primarily of not getting caught up in the pressure. It came across to me as a generalised opinion/advice you would give to any student based on your own experience. And to me that is what seemed unbalanced.


        • I think the sentiments were fine, if it was about balancing the pressure to go to University as the fulfilment of educational destiny and anything less being considered inferior. However I think the wording of the last section was unfortunate, as it left quite a generally negative view. I am sure that this is balanced by positive comments about University as well over the course of their time in the class?

          “Your friends will get caught up in that and end up in, for the most part, mundane jobs. Don’t think you are inferior if you don’t go to Uni at 17. You probably will hate it then anyway.”


  6. I think that Geoff Barton’s comments (RE: what’s required to get a ‘C’ in GCSE English) have been taken out of context. He’s alarmed by the political interference that meant that students who would’ve got a ‘C’ in January, went on to get a ‘D’. I don’t doubt for a moment that Geoff Barton encourages all of his students to achieve their very best, not just to aim for this minimum requirement.


  7. I think you’ve made the error of making a sweeping statement about people complaining about GCSE English grades this year without being in full evidence of the facts.

    There are many involved in the campaign to regrade GCSE English this year (myself included) not because of an increase in the level of work required to gain a grade C (or whatever) in 2012 compared to 2011 but rather the change has been done in an unfair manner with the increased level of challenge applied to some students and not others – most notably the June 2012 Foundation tier paper with AQA was assessed much more harshly than those who sat the paper in Jan 2012 for example despite both gaining their GCSE in summer 2012.

    That makes the GCSE English grades awarded in 2012 as the employer/university will have no idea whether the student took papers that were graded too harshly or too generously.

    There has been little (if any) controversy about GCSE science grades this year despite there being an increase in the level of work required to gain a grade C (or whatever) because the change was announced in advance and it was applied to all students gaining the qualification in summer 2012.


  8. I think you’ve rather missed the point of what the authors of some of your examples were trying to say, particularly number 2 – that education is about much more than just qualifications. I think these words by Alan Watts are wonderful – would you conclude them as evidence of dumbing down?

    I can see two sides to this argument that get to the heart of why we are educators and what our actual job is:

    1. We are there to teach pupils who would often not choose to be taught and ensure that they fulfil their academic potential. Therefore it’s our job to be an authority figure and make them work as hard as possible. Any deviation from this role is letting the pupils down.

    2. We are there to produce rounded individuals and that academic achievement is an important strand of what we do, but is not the ONLY strand. Therefore it’s important we allow pupils to go off at tangents sometimes even if academic achievement is compromised.

    To me, a good school will have a mix of teachers from both approaches. Too much of approach 1 makes school a rather hostile, boring and unenjoyable place. Too much of approach 2 will produce people with little work ethic. I think the really, really good teachers are those who are able to find the perfect balance between the two.


    • I think academic learning is what schools are there for. It’s all very well suggesting that there is more to education than that, but, in practice, the broader the aims the less academic learning actually happens.


  9. Also, I did my PGCE at Oxford University in secondary History. We were taught all sorts of wonderful inspiring ways of getting across complex historical situations and intricacies to bored teenagers, similar to the example of writing a Mr Men version of the Nazi history. I agree it’s not a brilliant activity and is a little trite as mentioned above, but there’s nothing really wrong with the thinking behind it.

    Through two years of rather dry study of Victorian Britain at A-level, one of my clearest memories was when a teacher showed me this. It may not have taught me much in itself, but it certainly helped get my attention for lots of other things.


  10. If you read the entire blog, you will see that the author is talking about what he would say to his 12 year old self. It certainly doesn’t seem like he’s about to stand in front of a class of 12 year olds and say this – It’s a personal, reflective piece.

    I think we do need to do our pupils the honour of being reasonably honest with them and giving them a broad range of information about the options for their future. Let’s credit them with the ability to make informed decisions about their own futures rather than railroading them into what we assume is best.


    • Thank you, Captain Easychord. Exactly the point of the post.


  11. I would say on the 5 examples:

    1. Completely unacceptable teacher advice- one should always be encouraged to reach for the stars. The only exceptions would be children who are vastly over-estimating their abilities and need a gentle reality check or students that are over working and/or making themselves ill or neglecting other issues.

    2. I get what the teacher is trying to do here but I think this is a conversation left till Y11 parent evening when kids likely know their future GCSE grades and are considering whether to do A-levels etc. In the meantime kids must be encouraged to do their very best at school. Its ok to make other career options valid though and yes, too many go to university in this country in my opinion and the government is waking up to this.

    3. I kind of agree with that Headteacher’s version of what a grade C English kid looks like- though perhaps we may differ on what qualifies as a decent sentence….not sure. However OA has explained why a Jan exam need not have identical boundaries to a July sitting and I agree with him that the English grades should not be regraded. Any kid with a D this year has probably already been flattered, certification wise, compared to kids from 15 years a go.

    4. Agree with the blogger on this. Cost is cost. And supply is massively outstripping demand.

    5. Totally understand how this seems disrespectful BUT I think it would be an interesting, engaging and worthwhile learning process for many students. And we already use simplified parodies of the complex characters of WW2 anyway. Seen Tarantino recently? Provided the teacher had led discussions in a respectful way and the atrocities were given due deference then I have no beef with it.

    In general though I am with OA in his worry that we are too quick to dumb down in this country.


    • OA said in his blog on GCSE English

      “If those who sat the written exam paper in January, and submitted in June, did get marked too generously in January, then the possibility exists that the higher boundaries in June did involve some kind of “clawback” to bring the results back into line with expectations. However, this involves a minority of the exams of a minority of students, and, depending on the degree of generosity in the January marks, there is no reason to assume that such a “clawback” did take place. If it did, then I would normally assume that the groups lobbying for regrading would have established this by now and it would be the centre of their case.”

      OFQUAL initially said that the number of students who gained a benefit from the lenient marking was very small and would make no difference overall. This was a valid line of defence.

      Sadly their final report showed that over 60% of students took the written paper before the summer of 2012. Now some of these were Higher tier students whose papers were not graded lenienty but just over 35% of the full cohort did recieve generous grades from January (or earlier) sittings of the written foundation paper.

      So, according to OFQUAL, 35% of the full cohort recieved overly generous marks and 65% have received accurate marks. To ‘prove’ this they state that the combined headline is exactly as expected based on the KS2 results of these students.

      Simple maths says that if the overall headlines are as expected yet over a third of the cohort were graded leniently then others must have been graded harshly to compensate.

      I wrote to OFQUAL after publication of their first report stating that my rough calculations (from publically available data) suggested that around half of students nationally had taken the written paper ‘early’ and the Head of OFQUAL replied personally saying that I was mistaken and although they did not have the exact figure at that stage it would be very small compared to the cohort overall. Not sure 60% is a small part of the cohort.

      I agree with OA that this should be the key focus of the legal challenge rather than ‘for all to be graded by the lenient January standards’ (although I can see an element of merit in that).

      Papers do, and always have had, varying boundaries from year to year when the paper is easier or harder. By AQA and OFQUAL’s own explicit statements Jan 2012 and June 2012 Foundation papers were equally diifcicult yet the boundary for a grade C increased by 13%.

      It’s not right that some (including our) students have been graded harshly to counterbalance errors that benefitted students elsewhere.

      That’s why I fight on this issue – not to lower standards but to ensure that standards are evaluated with consistency.


  12. To SWR,
    You make a fair case. I havent got any data for rebuttal and if Im honest I have forgotten many of the subtler issues on this topic that were in my mind 4 months ago (alas old age and memory are a poor marriage).

    I quite understand why you see the issue as ‘naturally unjust’ and you have the students best interests at heart. I don’t fault that one bit.

    And I hope I dont come over as too callous on this but because effectively 60% of english gcse is coursework and is redrafted/over assisted etc and expectations are too low anyway- I dont think there is much of a case when one looks at the wider picture.

    I really do think a “D” in June this year would be, I dunno, an E/F in years previous? I have taught kids with English B predictions that I would describe as functionally illiterate.

    So whilst some kids might have ‘lucked out’ due to an overly generous system over the past decade and got a C they didnt really deserve, the kid today with a “D’ doesnt really have much to moan about. Its probably a fairer reflection of their attainment/ability than a C- perhaps even a generous reflection.

    And if a new system or ethos is brought in, some kids will lose out by comparison, its just a question of which ones lose out.

    I know its a controversial statement to make, but its an honest observation from an experienced teacher.


    • Rob,

      Thanks for these comments. I’m glad that the issue of fairness to treatment to my students this year is coming through and not that I think grades should be ont he up and up by right.

      I agree that a grade D this year can’t really be compared with a grade D from years previous. Part of that is through ‘grade inflation’ as it has become known but another part is down to the fact that student now study more subjects than they did in the past.

      When I was at secondary school (late 80’s) I had 1 hour of English per day. Now 3 hours per week seems the norm. I did a total of 9 GCSES (I was a ‘high flyer’ in my school – most did 8) yet now students routinely gain 10,11 or more GCSES.

      We can argue that breadth of study is a good thing here – but since the total time at school is fixed that means a reduction in depth of study. It’s an arguement I’d like to see explored more fully.

      Re: coursework – or controlled assessment as it’s now styled. This again is a bugbear as we followed the regs to the letter – basically exam conditions, no draft/redraft involved – a bit of prep before hand and off you go for an hour (or whatever).

      Our marking was addressed as spot on by the moderators yet our students suffered because some schools (apparantly) did not follow the rules, some schools overmarked and the exam board frankly made uo some grade boundaries off the top of their head.

      The annex to the OFQUAL report shows that, on average, teachers overmarked coursework by around 1 mark. Yet reading the annex the examboard didn’t actually collect this data until after the controversy kicked off. Instead they guessed a 3 mark shift in the boundaries would be about right to correct for teacher overmarking. That’s just not good enough in my eyes.

      The bottom line for me is that OFQUAL wanted to keep results stable as they moved from one version of English GCSE to another (a fair enough goal); exam boards got the grading of early units wrong and had to hit the later units hard to compensate even though they werew taken by different students; OFQUAL thought that the number involved early were small so it didn’t matter and defended the grades; the evidence that came out in the final report shot the OFQUAL defence to pieces yet by then they had backed themselves and the DfE into a corner hence the ongoing mess.

      Leadership should be about doing the right thing and not the thing that you feel makes you look the best.

      I suspect the court case will be lost and things will move on but I’ll long regret that they filed the wrong case – the evidence that June was graded too harshly to counterbalance Jan is crystal clear – the case for all to be graded by Jan lenient boundaries is much murkier.


      • Dear SWR,
        – I appreciate you are against grade inflation
        – You and OA appear to agree the emphasis of the court case is wrong
        – I think you make a plausible case re what the boards did in the summer
        – I too have often though breadth may have compromised depth in schools.
        – My own school I think allows a little more leniency regards English coursework than yours does. But I know of schools that allow multiple re-drafts and C/D kids are ‘hand held’ to ensure they match the criteria for a C. This is unavoidable if ones allows 60% internal assessment.

        Of course this means schools that play by the rules, like your school, are disadvantaged. ‘Exams only’ will assist you and your students in the years to come.


  13. Terrible argument. Andrew seems to quite often accuse others of misleading or misquoting but to be honest he’s one of the biggest culprits in the education blog world. None of the examples are contextualised and none of them explain what is even meant by dumbing down.


  14. Hmmm. Whilst I’m not with Andrew on everything, he’s hit the nail on the head when identifying social class as a the key determining factor in educational attainment (as has long been established); what’s worth pondering though, is the subtlety of discourse that underpins this which goes beyond the usual poor home=poor grades thinking. There is a clear irony in that many of those who appear to consider themselves somewhere on the political left and purport to believe in the emancipatory power of education espouse the entirely contradictory notion that we should discourage (some) pupils from aspiring to university.

    Andrew is quite right – this is always OK for ‘other people’s children’ (i.e. on the whole, pupils from deprived socio-economic backgrounds who are the very pupils that stand to gain the most from university attendance). Why not teach all kids damn well to the highest academic level possible and then let them decide what they want to do with their lives?


    • I think “seeking sir” here is confusing a number of issues. I am not suggesting that they are confused, but they have presented some confusing information.

      It would be nice if receiving a University level education would guarantee freedom from the shackles of inequality but alas it appears not to be that simple. At a time when University attendance is at its highest level ever (except for the drop due to fee increases perhaps) social mobility seems to be worsening not improving.

      Although we don’t perhaps like to admit it, those born to wealthy parents or professional parents are likely to achieve more and be more mobile and it has always been thus. In the past the kids of parents with the biggest sword or meanest punch were provided the same advantages.

      Attending University at the expense of the tax paying public has not been the panacea it was hoped and in fact it is likely that the millstone of 30-60,000 GBP in debts and a working class upbringing will not be countered by a university education.

      At a time when the power, influence and economic clout of the UK in the world is declining and we have no real wish to start doing the sorts of jobs that are being done by many in the developing world it actually makes little sense to encourage too many to undertake a university education other than to up and leave the UK once one is done.

      Unfortunately it is a fact of life that the wealthy have a distinct advantage. I don’t like it but such is life. Any kid who will find a job that will not allow them to pay off their student debt etc before they retire should perhaps be advised that university is not for them unless they wish to have a life of indebtedness. We need to be more realistic in the way that information is presented to kids so that informed decisions can be made and for many getting a degree will make little difference to their earning potential and may not payback ever.

      Kids from deprived areas would also benefit most from private health care and would in the main see increased life expectancy etc but they are not provided such and are not encouraged to build up large debts to obtain such for themselves.

      There is a big difference between a situation in which the attainment of a kid is dependent upon their social class, and where education is dumbed down because of their social class although clearly when taxpayers are footing the bill for secondary education the education provided to some will always allow less scope for attainment. An issue I am interested in, is the extent to which teachers are paying the price (health) for attempts to increase the number of kids getting to university and providing opportunities for which society cannot pay the bill in GBP.


      • ‘I think “seeking sir” here is confusing a number of issues. I am not suggesting that they are confused, but they have presented some confusing information.’

        Irony…!? :)


        • Definitely.

          But only if you don’t know what the word irony means..:-)


  15. Is the apparent lack of sentence structure from your first paragraph another example of the ‘dumbing down’ of our education system? Are you a victim of it too? You poor thing.

    Forgive my dark humour but I think I have a point. You, perhaps, do too. But do make it using your own examples and not by citing (as you correctly state, out of “context”) the opinions of others.

    Blogging has its worth but will never replace quality journalism. I fear your post would not have seen the light of day once it had been seen by a decent sub.

    Must try harder, Battleground!


  16. Kay,
    I didnt agree with every part of OA’s post but:

    – his 1st para may not be spellbinding but seems ok to me

    – he explicitly asked readers to look up the contexts ourselves and even provided the links for our convenience

    – his post here (and posting history), in my view, equals or exceeds the journalistic standards of ANY publication I have ever seen, from the Sun to the Guardian, from TES to New Scientist.

    Perhaps you should have tried a bit harder in reading and replying Kay?


  17. Just in case anyone missed it, I have replied to a number of these comments here: http://teachingbattleground.wordpress.com/2013/01/05/yes-those-were-definitely-examples-of-dumbing-down/


  18. The sound you can hear is the cheering in the staff rooms of independent schools, as their stranglehold on the top grades is guaranteed for another four million years.


  19. I notice that the site advocating teaching about the Nazis through the medium of Mr. Men cartoons has a picture of a Mr, Man with a moustache.

    Well, it’s a start, isn’t it….


  20. […] what was Gove’s source for the Mr Men lesson? Answer: Andrew Old’s blog-post entitled “Attitudes Which cause Dumbing Down”, 3 January 2013, from his Scenes From the Battleground blog. Gove clearly pays attention to […]


  21. […] section may well be based on material brought to light by the last part of this blogpost (which was also the source of the Mr Men […]



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