Archive for April, 2007

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Mixed Ability Teaching Doesn’t Exist

April 15, 2007

It’s a favourite myth of the fashionably minded that you can teach children of different ability levels all at once. This is based on the idea that you can set them different work, and help them individually or in groups. Unfortunately setting work is not teaching, and talking to small groups is not teaching a class. The one thing you cannot do with a mixed ability class is teach it. Teaching involves telling the class what they do not know. This is not possible with a class where some students already know what you want to tell them, and some of them know so little that they won’t understand it if you do tell them.

This is, of course, why the movement for mixed ability classes is indistinguishable from the movement against teaching. The mixed ability class teacher is not a teacher at all. They are, often quite explicitly, a facilitator. They are a person who designs educational activities for children but doesn’t actually tell them what they need to know. They are a friend to the child, but not an expert on an academic subject.

Of course even setting work and leaving the kids to it can be fairly impractical to arrange, and in my experience, here’s how teachers cope with mixed ability classes:

  • Colouring in and drawing. The most able can design a poster illustrating the topic in question. The least able can draw a car or write the name of the topic in bubble writing. Where mixed ability classes are most common (e.g. humanities subjects at Key Stage 3, PSHE lessons, etc) students can be forgiven for thinking that the entire subject revolves around colouring in and the drawing of posters.
  • Group work. This is actually misnamed as it is highly impractical for an entire group to do the work. A better name for it would be “Sarah, the bright girl and her friend Lucy’s work”. However as long as Kevin, who sat at the same table picking his nose, is allowed to write his name on the back of the piece of work then the teacher can claim that Kevin has also worked in the lesson.
  • Copying down. As long as you have a lot of writing in the textbook, and you have at least some actual questions for the fastest writers to do when they’ve copied the whole of pages 57-63 then an entire class can be kept busy copying down the same piece of work. Admittedly, Sarah and Lucy will have copied an entire text book by the end of the year and Kevin will never get beyond copying the first paragraph, but it keeps them all busy.
  • Ignore a large chunk of the class. Let’s face it Kevin probably wouldn’t learn anything even if he could understand what was going on. Sarah and Lucy will be fine in exams, and life regardless of whether they learn anything today. The lesson is pitched at the child who is about two thirds of the way through the ability range. Sarah and Lucy can spend any spare time they have after finishing their work decorating it with ornate borders. If you deliberately forget to tell Kevin he should be getting on with his work, he may never notice he can’t actually do it.
  • Project work. This is where you give students a variety of exercises to do, but they can be done in any lesson, in any order and they all have to go in a folder. If they finish too soon they can decorate the folder for a lesson or two.

The worst thing is that despite the fact that these are obvious scams to get round the problems of teaching an unteachable class, there are now advocates of group work and project work who believe that all lessons should be conducted in this fashion. It just goes to show the lengths teachers will go to convince themselves they are doing a worthwhile job, even when students are learning less than they would if they were sent home with a book to read.

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Gag the Student Voice

April 8, 2007

One of the latest daft ideas to become fashionable is “Student Voice”, the idea that the kids in a school need to be consulted before decisions are made. If you view schools as social institutions whose main purpose is to provide entertainment for the students then this view makes perfect sense. If you view schools as academic institutions, whose main purpose is to educate children then it makes considerably less sense. Given that the main obstacles to educating children are those students who do not want to be educated and do not want others to be educated then this approach is likely to be on a par with asking the police to consult with muggers and asking doctors to consult with infections.

Of course, it depends on the school. I previously wrote about the questionnaire at Woodrow Wilson School that revealed that the students wanted stronger discipline, and the worst behaved students removed from their classes. However, Woodrow Wilson School had quite a strong middle class intake, supportive parents and strong standards of discipline in most of the primary schools the students had arrived from. Many students there were shocked when they arrived to see how out of control the students were, and new year 7s would take several months to adjust from the politeness and order of their primary schools to the rudeness and chaos of Woodrow Wilson. The opinions of most students, particularly the younger ones, reflected that they had an interest in learning that was being disrupted by the poor discipline and mixed ability classes.

By contrast, the intake to Stafford Grove School had no such bias towards learning. When they were consulted their opinions made it clear that what they wanted most were “fun” lessons (i.e. ones with no actual work in) and group work (i.e. sitting with a group of friends chatting). It is here that I realised that the Student Voice not only didn’t need to be listened to, it needed to be actively suppressed. Certain classes put forward their opinion quite forthrightly. The main elements of that opinion were:

  • We shouldn’t have to work if we don’t want to
  • Working is boring
  • Our conversations are more important than anything the teacher says
  • We can treat teachers how we like
  • How we do in our exams depends on the teacher not on us
  • Teachers shouldn’t expect us to follow the rules and any attempt to enforce those rules is unfair and personally motivated

These attitudes were all-pervasive and any effort to change them would be resisted with verbal abuse and even violence. This culture is fairly common in schools nowadays and it makes the very concept of consulting the students meaningless. Any survey of students at Stafford Grove will show a significant (but not universal) preference for lessons where work is optional and for teachers who are undemanding. I’m not speaking here from a position of being a particularly disliked teacher, I have a 4 out of 5 rating and positive comments on ratemyteacher from my time at Stafford Grove. However I soon discovered this had resulted from students who liked my taste in music (hard to believe) rather than anything related to teaching. Nobody’s going to win over students there by helping them learn.

The worst idea I’ve heard suggested as a way to increase the Student Voice is to let students play a part in interviewing and assessing job candidates. Perhaps there are schools where the students are so dedicated to learning that the ability to teach is the main criterion they would consider. This is not the case in any school I’ve taught at. I would leave on principle any interview where students were to have a say.

If you wouldn’t, then don’t be surprised if your feedback after the interview is something like this:

“Well I’m sorry to say that you didn’t get the job. Our interview panel raised a number of areas of concern. Firstly, you didn’t let them have fizzy drinks and the panel felt that’s so gay, man. Secondly, you support Everton and Everton are gay. Thirdly, your mum’s a ho and so’s your nan. Let us know if you’d like any more feedback or to ask any more question about the interview process. Thanks for coming to the school.”

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If Only They Didn’t Have to Learn

April 1, 2007

“Further, the idea ‘School’ is that of a personal transaction between a ‘teacher and a ‘learner’, the only indispensable equipment of ‘School’ is teachers: the current emphasis on apparatus of all sorts (not merely ‘teaching’ apparatus) is almost wholly destructive of ‘School’. A teacher is one in whom some part or aspect or passage of this inheritance is alive. He has something of which he is a master to impart (an ignorant teacher is a contradiction) and he has deliberated its worth and the manner in which he is to impart it to a learner whom he knows. He is himself the custodian of that ‘practice’ in which an inheritance of human understanding survives and is perpetually renewed in being imparted to newcomers. To teach is to bring it about that, somehow, something of worth intended by a teacher is learned, understood and remembered by a learner.“

Oakeshott (1972)

If I couldn’t teach, and by that I mean if I couldn’t explain my subject to students in a way that helps them to learn it, but I still wanted to be employed as a teacher then I’d have just a few excuses to fall back on.

I could argue that I shouldn’t be judged by whether my students know anything. After all being able to recite cold, dry facts doesn’t show any deeper level of understanding. My students might not know much, but perhaps they have a really deep conceptual understanding of the little they do know. Of course, understanding (unlike knowledge) is highly subjective so it’s hardly my fault that they can’t demonstrate that understanding. In fact it is unreasonable that the educational system in Britain dictates what should or shouldn’t be taught rather than leaving me to do whatever I like.

Then I could suggest that at no point should any students I teach be tested. Tests aren’t fair, they are just a snap-shot that will miss their true level of learning. If they must be assessed then the only assessment that counts should be one that I come up with myself based largely on my own judgements. After all, I’m a teacher, so I must have at least a couple of grade D A-levels and a degree from a former polytechnic, and therefore I must be far more able to assess ability than any examiner who doesn’t even know the students. Moreover students who do badly in tests are emotionally scarred by the experience and will become disillusioned with their education and have poor self-esteem. For their own emotional well-being we must stop them discovering how little they know. It’s the kind thing to do.

If I was in any danger of feeling guilty about having achieved nothing with my students then I could, of course, reassure myself that school isn’t about learning academic disciplines. It’s about the social experience. I may not have affected their ability to get into university or get a job, but I may well have taught them respect for something, and enthusiasm for something else. Just because I’m a teacher doesn’t mean I should be that concerned about teaching them, what matters is that I’ve inspired them. I’ve been their friend. I’ve talked to them about growing up, their problems at home and the football. It’s far more important that teenagers, particularly those from deprived backgrounds, have the experience of having a positive relationship with a middle class person, than that they get a good job or go into further or higher education. A friend of mine who teaches English was told, while training, that just speaking to kids using Received Pronunciation was “doing the job”.

If I wanted to achieve the next level of self-delusion I could then get quite irate and ideological at the politicians and parents who insist that we put so much effort into teaching students and assessing what they’ve learnt. I would also get upset at a system that allows parents to choose between schools and get their kids into the school where they have the best chance of learning. Moreover I could rail against a society which is so concerned with material things that we care more about whether school leavers can read, write and add up well enough to be employable rather than whether they feel good about themselves. I could even join a trade union which would back me in opposing all this emphasis on learning .

Now I might get to hear that there are other problems in the educational system. Poor behaviour, bullying or truancy might come to my attention. I might discover that lots of teachers who are good at their subject leave within in a year or two, and that for difficult subjects it’s hard to recruit anyone to teach them at all. However as a fully paid up educational radical I can declare that all these problems are a symptom of a system that hasn’t followed my priorities. In particular any problem related to the attitude of the students is down to reactionaries hassling them with all this academic stuff. Just as all of society’s problems will be solved after the Revolution, all of the problems of secondary education will be solved after we stop the tyranny of requiring the kids to learn.

Of course I can actually teach, and students learn in all of my classes. So as far as I’m concerned the fact that children are tested is to my distinct advantage. The pay-off from the effort I put in is that they have learnt and can be shown to have learnt. Every time I hear a colleague (or more likely an educationalist or union leader) complain about the pressures of testing or the unfairness of having to teach according to a curriculum, rather than according to whim, I do feel like asking “Do you actually teach?” or even “Do your students actually learn?” The problem in our schools is not that children are expected to learn, it’s that they aren’t expected to behave.

References:

Oakeshott, Micheal, Education: The Engagement and its Frustration, 1972

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