Yes, Those Were Definitely Examples of Dumbing Down

January 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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  1. Dear OA,
    I agree that dumbing down is a problem and I agree with your choice of some of the examples you selected.

    I also quite accept that a ‘middle class pushy’ parent would not look kindly on the ‘Mr Men’ activity. But I myself find that this sort of parent can be aggressive and reactionary, quick to criticise but slow to value subtle positives. I certainly would not use the middle class busy body as my ‘guiding light’ on all things educational, though I support your more important point about all classes deserving quality education.

    Uni- We have debated before about the proportion going to uni. I still feel the top 30% or so of talent should be able to go, BUT regardless of class.

    I still think you have to have a vague correlation between jobs that require degrees and those taking degrees, otherwise you have the inevitable consequence of mass graduate unemployment.

    I wouldn’t mind so much if degrees were free. But they are not. They are expensive for the student, the parent and the state.

    Mr Men- I really do think this could have value. Its humorous, unusual and its very incongruity, is what makes it likely to engage the students more than usual.

    I can see a very bright class liking this as well as a disaffected one. I’m sure all children know about Mr Men so I doubt its that much learning time lost in the kids getting to know the Mr Men story mechanism. As a parent and teacher this would be fine in my book.

    Ambition- well I couldn’t agree more on your comments there.

  2. “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.”

    I sincerely hope that this isn’t intended to be taken seriously, as it is quite startling arrogant (even more so than your original blog post).

    • Is it the phrase “I’m right” that is considered arrogant these days? Or just the willingness to reject ad hominem arguments out of hand?

      • mrmcenaney: Chesterton replies to your accusation of arrogance better than I could:

        “…what we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert–himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt–the Divine Reason. Huxley preached a humility content to learn from Nature. But the new sceptic is so humble that he doubts if he can even learn. Thus we should be wrong if we had said hastily that there is no humility typical of our time. The truth is that there is a real humility typical of our time; but it so happens that it is practically a more poisonous humility than the wildest prostrations of the ascetic. The old humility was a spur that prevented a man from stopping; not a nail in his boot that prevented him from going on. For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.

        “At any street corner we may meet a man who utters the frantic and blasphemous statement that he may be wrong. Every day one comes across somebody who says that of course his view may not be the right one. Of course his view must be the right one, or it is not his view. We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table. We are in danger of seeing philosophers who doubt the law of gravity as being a mere fancy of their own. Scoffers of old time were too proud to be convinced; but these are too humble to be convinced. The meek do inherit the earth; but the modern sceptics are too meek even to claim their inheritance. It is exactly this intellectual helplessness which is our second problem.”

  3. For many more examples of dumbing down, there are about 80 posts on my blog “Wasting Time in School.” I started it specifically to catalog all of the time-wasting projects that educators manage to assign despite all of the supposedly onerous pressure of test-based accountability.

    • I read your blog with interest Wasting Time, and asked you a question on there which I hope you get chance to answer. I was interested to know what experience you have or working in education.

  4. If you don’t read anything else on my blog, check out Gilbert Sewall’s article “Lost in Action.” http://www.aft.org/newspubs/periodicals/ae/summer2000/sewall.cfm

  5. “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.”

    I really can’t work out if this comment is serious or ironic.

    I have really enjoyed some of your blogs, but the last couple do have a slight whiff of Daily Mail to them.

  6. For me there is a problem of conflation of issues here. OA

    does tend to write thought provoking articles but I have to admit that I thought his account had been hacked with this one as the examples didn’t hang together for me.

    I read a lot of Dan willingham’s stuff and I was pointed in that direction by OA. I believe that much of the good work done by academics tends be adopted in a vulgarised form by educationalists and the Mr Men example is why I have decided to post. I have read OA’s defence of this example including the blogpost to which he referred and I am still not convinced.Indeed I believe that this is sloppy use of what appears to be useful academic research.

    The blogpost referred to uses Dan Willingham’s example of the manufacture of biscuits for learning about the Underground Railroad and this does seem to be a valid and logical issues raised by Dan Willingham.

    Indeed the author of the blogpost quoted an example from experience for which the activities seemed to be inappropriate given the learning outcomes for the activities. I would have questioned the choice without the benefit of Willingham’s advice personally but this seemd a valid example.

    OA’s argument however did not convince me. The point was to transfer the beliefs, personalities, decisions etc from the Hitler scenario to the Mr Men. The idea seemed to be to look at the personalities and relationships between the Hitler characters and look for similarities and differences with the Mr Men characters.To be successful in this task one really needed to understand that Hitler situation In my view and as the Mr Men characters are easily understodd and many kids would already be familiar I believe that this was a very valid and useful task performing learning as well as formative assessment functions. I really can’t see the argument that learners would attend to Mr Men issues to the extent that the process would be hyjacked and the examples quoted by the blogger do not seem analogous to me.

    The argument almost appears to me to be of the form……the Mr Men is a kids cartoon therefore to use it in a lesson about Hitler must be dumbing down.

    To use Dan Willingham’s point about diverting attention seems to me to be nothing whatsoever to do with dumbing down so as a defence, to me it doesn’t work. I think maybe OA has been suffering for the flu over the Xmas break

    The issues elsewhere in the post I will leave to others who have done a great job with their comments.

    I do want to say also however that although I think the issue of the proportion of UK population that go to university is also nothing to do with dumbing down, although it can impact on expectations. The decision about using public funds to send large numbers of people to University for a “Higher Education” is clearly a political and philosophical one. On a practical note, I question the rationality of many young people who take on large debts at an age when they really dont need to and embark on courses which will not enable them to pay back the debts in reasonable timeframes.There is clearly a good argument for saying that the UK public should not fund courses which have no great economic payback and that these should perhaps be the realm of the middle/upper classes and this will have a knock on effect on the ability of the poor to attend University but such is life. I don’t think it is a dumbing down issue.

    • I have a problem with the whole “activities agenda” for various reasons that don’t matter here. But my problem with the Mr Men one in particular is that I can’t see how it can lend itself to anything other than the most superficial thinking. To try to understand the motivations or charactersitics of some of the most evil (or, if you don’t like that, let’s say “complex”) people who ever existed by juxtaposing an extremely limited range of Mr Men…Well, let’s have a look at the whole range of Mr Men (and Little Misses, if you like) here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Mr._Men and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Little_Miss_characters. So, what was Goebbels then? Was he Cheeky, Rude, Greedy, Grumpy? OK I cherry-picked there. But seriously, I really don’t see how the current crop of Mr Men and Little Miss characters allows anyone to come out of this activity with a clear grasp of the Nazis. In fact, I’d go as far to say that anyone who suggests this is an appropriate activity hasn’t really understood the nature of Nazism, or, if they have, then they are failing to pass that on to their students. Mr Men being a cartoon has nothing to do with it, at least not in my mind. Alan Moore’s work and Art Spiegelman’s Maus books are, for this purpose, everything Roger Hargreaves’ creations are not. I may be stretching it slightly here – they’re graphic novels – but I think my point stands.

    • Your argument is, as I understand it, that if you link back to the very original description of why activities don’t work, is even less educational than the Mr Man activity. This is true, but it still doesn’t distract from the point that in the Mr Men lesson the students will spend a considerable amount of time either being taught about, or thinking about, the Mr Men. That will be a major part of what they learn. This time and effort should be balanced against alternative activities which concentrate on what is to be learned. If analytical techniques are to be learned at the same time as reviewing their knowledge, they should surely be considerably more sophisticated than learning to find analogies with the Mr Men.

  7. As someone who is well educated and middle class, albeit without children, I was shocked that the Mr Men example was even proposed as a way to teach Nazi Germany. Quite frankly it is something which I would expect to be given to less bright primary school children.

    Out of the examples Old Andrew gave, I initially thought it was made up as I could not believe that any teachers would be stupid enough to even consider this as an idea. Most of the other examples were largely based on misguided ideologies, again something that I would not typically expect teachers to adhere to but then I also think that teachers should be the brightest and best in their academic abilities, sadly something that is often not the case.

    • “Quite frankly it is something which I would expect to be given to less bright primary school children.”

      You may be correct but I don’t see it. Could you briefly explain why.

      • Perhaps because the Mr Men books are aimed at five year-olds, and GCSE students (and brighter primary pupils) should have moved beyond that level to something rather more mature and sophisticated? Just a thought.

        I’m rather surprised that, in the welter of discussion over whether this is either a good use of time or a tasteless response to the Holocaust, nobody has pointed that this activity is quite unbelievably insulting to any GCSE pupil with half a brain.

  8. Even if I accept this, is it really plausible to view the relationships between the various Nazis and the Mr Men ? Is there any real commonality ? From my memory of Hargreaves’ books there is very little real conflict in there.

    There aren’t any similarities and differences with the Mr Men characters. I looked up the list on Wikipedia – those with negative connotations are greedy, mean, grumpy, rude, grumble, wrong, not exactly horrific.

    Hardly things likely to express a difference between Himmler, Goering and Heydrich is it ?

    I would say anyone who ‘understood’ the personalities of the various Nazis would probably conclude the exercise was fatuous.

    • Paul

      I think I can understand where you are coming from but I tend to disagree, and please don’t think I am suggesting that this is the best activity to teach this content for all students. This activity is designed to be a “rounding off” or “revision” activity and as such it is appropriate in my view.

      I can however see great potential benefit in getting kids to consider the similarities and differences and to construct analogies whether these be strong or weak analogies. The point for me is that the process requires the kids to think about these things requires them to focus their attention.

      I would debate the efficacy of using the various Mr Men characters with you as I believe your analysis is defective, but there is little point in doing so as this really misses the point. This is an enjoyable activity that is likely to engage the kids and will hopefully reinforce the learning that has taken place during the course. No one seems to be suggesting that this will be a critical activity to be used teaching the topic. Even if it were used for teaching although not very efficient it would still have some value I think.

      “I would say anyone who ‘understood’ the personalities of the various Nazis would probably conclude the exercise was fatuous.”

      Do you not see that even if what you say is true, the process of trying to prove it to be fatuous would in itself be useful. You even say yourself that “anyone who ‘understood’ the personalities ” would probably find the exercise fatuous and in doing the task they might demonstrate their “understanding”. It is almost starting to sound like education when you describe it like that.

      • The problem is the Mr Men characters are very very simple constructs with really no depth at all. Mr Happy is happy. Mr Tickle tickles people. Their whole raison d’etre is there single overarching personality trait or behaviour. People just aren’t like that.

        You are comparing something simplistic designed to amuse four year olds with real people.

        You are in danger of just reducing things to Hitler is bad, Goebbels is bad, Himmler is bad type statements. Whilst these are I suppose basically true there’s a bit more to it than that.

        I take the point that the fatuousity in itself could be useful, but whether that use is proportional to the time taken is a moot point, and the lesson is not historical but about the thought processes of educators.

        If you are going to do this kind of thing why not pick characters with at least some depth like say Harry Potter characters ?

  9. You need to read between the lines Paul.

    In Mr Messy, there are subtle references to entropy and the invasive role of the state vs the private political self.

    And Mr Bouncy is a barely disguised celebration of sodomy and hedonism in the 20th Century.

    I mean, its not as filthy as Watership Down, but still, it should never have evaded the censor.

    ps and arguably Adolf did come across a bit grumpy in his addresses.

    • Excellent reply I thought.

      Only problem is I wasn’t sure whether, of the three possibilities that immediately sprung to mind you were simply being sarcastic, arguing that the activity was a useful one or arguing that the activity was of little value.

      If the first I thought it was ok, if the second then I thought it excellent but if the last then probably not so good.

      Then it occurred to me that you might just be showing off your knowledge of German History, English or the Mr Men in which case if the first then not so good, second ok and the last a bit limited in scope especially.

    • Thank you Rob, just dropped in for my usual dose of OA and you made me laugh!

  10. I actually quite like the activity – I could see it being engaging and educational.
    Though I get why it would, on the surface, appear to be tacky/fatuous/simplistic.

  11. I know exactly why the Mr Men task was devised. The students are expected to know the complex manoeuvring for power in the run up to Hitler becoming chancellor. Its the hardest bit of that topic for the students to wedge in their heads. The Mr Men cartoon means they think about the course of events and think about the main characters in more detail than they might otherwise so are more likely to remember the events and people. It is a solution to a very particular problem with that part of the topic. Its nothing much to do with equating personalities with Mr Men.
    I don’t like the Mr Men task though because as a solution it is too time consuming, Mr Men are too much of a distraction and It is a bit too tasteless. There is a current Germany history GCSE text book that has a test section at the end of each chapter in which a cartoon picture of Hitler asks the kids ‘Have you been learning?’I kid you not. I mentioned to the sales rep for the publishers that not only was it tasteless it was sending entirely the wrong message about the study of history. She just said to me that no one else had ever complained.
    I’m now going to admit that last year I introduced the personalities involved in Hitler’s rise to power and got my students to note the course of events in cartoon strip format (not Mr Man!) Despite pretty much agreeing with most things OA says I find the cartoon really helped the kids think about the personalities and what happened when better than making ordinary notes would have.
    I suppose that although my task had some real use I am happy to view my task as dumbing down but I do tend to do the odd lesson that I justify because it buys me good will from the kids for lots of lessons of solid grind over the term.

  12. The problem for the history teacher is that you have just managed to get your students to grasp: Kaisar, armistice, republic, mutiny, abdication, communist, reichstag, proportional representation, constitution, role of chancellor, role of president, right and left wing, hyper inflation etc they finally remember who the social democrats were and you are thrilled they really do have some concept of left and right wing. They even take on board the causes of the Great Depression and then out of the blue you introduce Bruning, Von Schleicher, Von Papen and Hindenburg. Most of these chaps only stay in the story briefly but while on stage they engage in a very complex power struggle and then bugger off before your weak kids have even noticed they were there let alone managed to spell anything close to Von Schleicher. That is the context of the Mr Man task. It is in bad taste and a poor use of time but it is a specific solution to a problem students face when learning about this period.

    • If the teacher can’t even spell Kaiser, I’m not sure what hope there is for the students anyway, Mr Men or no Mr Men…

      • Well done for dropping by 3 months after everyone else to highlight what is in all probability merely a typo.

  13. I would expect student to be able to remember the whole course of World War I and World War II, the Nazi rise to power, the Russian Revolution, Stalin’s career, the unification of Germany and Italy, the history of India, China and Japan in the 20th Century, the Vietnam War, the Arab Israeli conflict, decolonisation. I would expect them to read a number of books on all these subjects. And that would be just modern history.
    They might like to do a spot of ancient history as well. Not to mention, mathematics, science, English novels and plays, cricket scores, the prices of groceries at the supermarket, the road rules, the words of songs, phone numbers, their way home, how to tie their shoe laces. ( I was kidding about the phone numbers.)
    Their brains will not explode if they learn things. If the teacher can remember the course, the students can too.
    Having read all the Mr Men books and all the Little Miss books, in a previous lifetime, I don’t think it is an easy task to use them as metaphor for German history.

    • You say that ‘perplexed’, but if you look at the new OFSTED criteria sheets you will see that ‘childrens heads exploding during class time’ automatically relegates a lesson to ‘unsatisfactory’.

      And these days ‘shoe lace tying’ is reserved for the top stream, along along with Latin and peristalsis.

  14. You can expect all you like – doesn’t mean they will learn it all. Its my job to make sure they do learn lots. History is one of the most content heavy GCSEs and I help my students learn it, through regular testing but also by using my experience to anticipate what they will find difficult and thinking of ways to help them, thats what makes me a teacher and not a lecturer. Probably most school kids have the potential to learn vastly more than they do but that view will not make the kids sitting in front of me suddenly think that particular topic is easy, for them its not and I have to move them on from where they currently are, not where they might be, if they had been educated differently.
    Any one with any real experience of teaching average year 10s knows that teaching the range of concepts I listed in the last post, all necessary to understand Weimar Germany, is no small task, especially with limited teacing time.

    I don’t think that Mr Man task is any good either.

  15. My point in listing what the students cover for this topic was to illustrate that Weimar Germany is a particularly challenging part of the GCSE if it is taught. Of course you could do an exam board that begins in 1929 and so skips most of the hard bits to get straight to the Nazis, which is easier to teach.I think doing that really is dumbing down.

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