Yes, Those Were Definitely Examples of Dumbing DownJanuary 5, 2013
I had a feeling my last post, the one consisting of five examples of low expectations, would be controversial. The culture of lowered expectations is so pervasive that plenty of people feel they are aware of it, and against it, without actually being sensitive to particular examples. We could probably all, myself included, do with contemplating whether what we do involves any dumbing down. It helps to ask yourself the question “what would a pushy middle class parent make of this?” before engaging in some activities. That way, there is a fighting chance that we can deliver to kids who don’t have pushy middle class parents the quality of education given to those who do. I think all my examples fail this test rather clearly and I am confident that most educated people who do not teach would agree that those were examples of dumbing down. It’s only those within the system who have been acclimatised to dumbing-down who might feel otherwise.
I will respond here to some the points made in the comments (and what I remember of the comments made on Twitter). I will start by observing that I made a particular point of telling people to read the original sources, rather than just my selections. None of my quotations were selected for any reason other than to illustrate a key point, and there was no attempt to take anything out of context. In some cases I butchered the quotation in order to include more of the context. If you want to accuse me of taking anything out of context you’d better put together a proper argument rather than just declare it to be “out of context” like a Christian fundamentalist confronted with a Bible verse which doesn’t seem to fit.
With regard to the second example, the teacher who would tell his twelve year old self not to worry about going to university at 17 (the usual age in Scotland). It is possible that it is entirely down to his own circumstances. However, it was in the context of meeting his new class and imagining his twelve year old self to be one of them. Certainly, when it was retweeted there was no attempt by any retweeters to qualify the advice as only applicable to the teacher himself. There is no clear statement that normally aspiring to university is to be required.
Of course, we (particularly teachers) do have a habit in this country of complaining that too many people go to university. I’m the first to complain about universities providing dumbed-down degrees and anything I say about the importance of going to university to do a degree should always be with the qualification “if the university and the degree are any good and if the students are adequately prepared”. However, I do not accept that a high proportion of people going to university is, in itself, a bad thing. I do not accept that the way to deal with universities offering worthless courses is to strangle the demand for higher education, rather than to deal with those universities. I do not accept the argument that the majority of other people’s children (and this is always an argument about other people’s children) are inherently “non-academic”. Partly, this is because some countries have much higher rates of university participation than we do, but mainly it comes down to class. Social class remains the key factor in going to university. We are are a society where the middle classes assume they are going to university and those from deprived backgrounds don’t. The belief that university is unsuitable for “kids like us” (or worse, “kids like you”) is pervasive in so many schools in deprived areas. Teachers cannot afford to be emphasising to kids that university is one goal among others, because the effect won’t be to deter the posh-but-thick; it will be to deter the working class. It is better to make everyone try to get into a good university, and have a lot fail, than to write off so many of the able-but-poor like we do now. University should be a goal for all because a good education should be a goal for all and even in failing to achieve that goal, one may be given the means to achieve many other goals instead.
The third example is controversial mainly because it referred to the GCSE English farrago. I would recommend anyone who has managed to convince themselves that this is not to do with dumbing down, but it is down to some kind of specific unfairness, to read the many blogs I wrote on the subject at the time. The agenda of the regraders is to give 75% of the cohort a grade C or above and among those who took the formal exam first and then had months of easily manipulated controlled assessment to bring them up to the required grade that pass rate rises to 85% (i.e. so high as to be likely to include many children who could be described as functionally illiterate). To raise the pass rate by so much (I believe it had never been higher than the mid 60s previously, even after twenty years of grade inflation) would appear to be drastic dumbing-down, but the defence has always been that we should do it because those numbers don’t matter as long as we are abiding by “the criteria”. To be told the criteria is “write using paragraphs; write using mostly accurate sentences and spelling; and be boring” makes a mockery of this. Grade C in English was meant to be equivalent to O-level. It was meant to be the level required for becoming a teacher. It was meant to be, at worst, average and originally for those far above average. It was not meant to be something the average middle class 11 year old could do. If you want those criteria and those percentages then this is dumbing down even if there was some unfairness about the exam and even if you feel that you should have been warned in advance that standards were going to be maintained.
There was one longer comment suggesting there may have been a genuine injustice if you compare the results of those who took the written exam in January, and the controlled assessment(s) later, with those who took/submitted all modules at the end. I have acknowledged this before, and all I can do is point out that the regrading lobbying have completely failed to focus on this. In fact, most of the fuss has been about those kids which this argument says were advantaged. They are, after all, the ones where teachers could do most to manipulate the grades. I do take the point but it is does not reflect the argument of the regrading lobby who, instead of saying these kids were unfairly advantaged as things stand, actually want the controlled assessments for these kids raised so that 85% of them get C and above. The regrading lobby want to maintain that unfair advantage, but against a background of a lot more Cs overall, rather than to redress the balance for those who took the written exam later.
The fifth example, the one where year 11s were encouraged to turn the rise of Nazism into a Mr Men book, was the one where I was expecting least comeback. Even if people didn’t accept that 16 year olds should be engaged in more sophisticated ways of presenting their thoughts, I assumed the sheer tastelessness would deter anyone from defending it. I was wrong. So, ignoring how tasteless it is, let me address why this is also dumbed-down. I think much of what people have missed is answered by this excellent blogpost from Daisy at the Curriculum Centre. The argument is that, when designing activities, students will learn what they think about. So if students do a lesson where the Mr Men are explained to them, and they are meant to use the Mr Men in their analysis, then, for at least some of that time, they will end up learning about the Mr Men when they could be learning about history. It stands out as dumbing-down, in a way that, say, writing a play about Hitler’s rise to power (an equally ineffective way of learning history) doesn’t, because we do not want to spend time and money teaching KS4 students about the Mr Men. (Although according to OFSTED that’s fine for Key Stage 3). If you missed that this is what was going to happen in the Mr Men lesson then, please, read that blogpost I mentioned earlier and the sources it links to, and replan your schemes of work, bearing in mind the golden rule that what they think about is what they will learn.
The final point raised in some of the comments was that it is, in some way, bad to have searched for and publicised examples of dumbing-down. Partly, I wish I had searched. These were all things that I happened to find without really looking, usually because other people were enthusiastically promoting them, and I made a note at the time. I suppose it might be tough on those criticised, but all of these sources have been deliberately placed in the public sphere, often by individuals either presenting themselves, or presented by others, as experts in their field. I said at the time my main motive was to provide evidence of the sort of thing that is actually often denied. I know that if I said in a blogpost “there are headteachers who would happily give grade Cs to kids who can write just a few readable passages” or “there are consultants who attack the very idea of an academic education” I would be met by denials and claims of setting up a straw man to attack. I still remember the Twitter response to the story that David Laws had said some teachers lack ambition for their students. At that time, I saw blanket denial of the very things some of my examples illustrated. It’s good to get this evidence to hand if anyone wants to claim that all teachers want their students to aim for the best.
I guess that still leaves the complaint that what I wrote was negative and sniping and, therefore, claiming my own superiority. My only defence against this accusation is that, whatever you want to read into it about me personally, I was right and that should count for something.
As well as writing this blogpost I will also go back and address some of the individual comments when I get a chance.
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