Glittering Prizes?

Prize or portent?

Prize or portent?

Yesterday evening, a colleague from the university was returning to her old school on a mission. I happened to meet her as we were both walking to the carpark at the end of another busy day, and it was during this brief perambulation that she disclosed her apprehensions about the evening ahead. It appears that several months ago she received an invitation from her alma mater to present the prizes at the school’s annual celebration of the achievements of its pupils. At the time, she told me, this seemed like a good idea. Indeed she was flattered by the wording of the invitation stating that as a distinguished alumnus of the school, a well-respected historian and author of a number of key texts, they would be honoured if she would accept their invitation. However, as the moment drew ever nearer she began to wonder why she had ever agreed to this request. She had had recurring visions of staring down from the stage at the gathered masses, who would neither recognise her as anyone of significance or have any desire to be captivated by her words of wisdom. “I am sure”, she suggested, “that if it were Adele, or Wayne Rooney standing before them they would hang on every word.” I suspect that she has interpreted the situation quite accurately, and that neither bursting into song, nor heading a ball into the fourth row will be likely to retrieve the situation for her.

I must confess that I had imagined that prize giving events at schools had probably been confined to history some time ago. As I drove home I found myself sympathising with my colleague’s dilemma, and then smiling with some relief as I remembered that the ugly 1960’s school building that I had myself attended was in the recent past demolished to make way for a housing estate, and therefore no longer exists. This adds certainty to the unlikeliness of ever receiving such a daunting invitation to a similar event.

It was later yesterday evening when my mind returned to the conversation with my colleague that I found myself wondering how the event to which she had so nobly committed was proceeding. As I pondered her situation I began to realise that there are a number of items here at my home that have a close affinity to school prize giving evenings. Thinking about these mementos I began to imagine what they might have meant to the recipient of prizes at the time when they were awarded.

On a wall in our hallway hangs a dark wooden display frame which holds a number of medallions awarded to members of my family for perfect school attendance. Covering dates from 1912 to 1918 these Gloucester Education Committee awards were won by my grandfather and his siblings and were presented to encourage all children and parents in the city to value educational opportunity, and ensure that they were punctual and punctilious in their attendance. An earlier award of a book titled “The Bravest Gentleman in France” is inscribed “Gloucester Education Committee, Linden Road Council School, presented to Henry Terrett for efficiency and regular attendance during the school year ending October 31st 1910. School open 417 times, attended 417,” it is signed by P. Barrett Cooke, Sec. Whenever I open this book I cannot help thinking of the irony that my Uncle Harry received a prize, the title of which may well have returned to his mind as six years later he fought for survival amongst the mud and death that surrounded him at the Battle of the Somme.

Not all of the school prizes within my possession are of so personal a nature. A number of years ago in Norfolk, browsing a second hand book shop (the only form of shopping that seems truly to have any real purpose!) I came across a beautiful leather bound, though slightly foxed, 1934 edition of the Complete Poems of Rupert Brooke, for which I gladly parted with a five pound note. Though slightly the worse for wear, this book has one of the finest bindings of the many that cover the walls of my study. It is, however, the inscription inside the cover of this tome that gives me cause to reflect on the journey it has made to come into my possession. Written in copperplate within the cover are the words “Lancaster Rural Grammar School. This book is presented to J. Jackson for having contributed the best speech at the Whersell Society Prize Debate on Saturday February 27th 1937. J.H. Shackleton-Bailey D.D. Head Master.” J. Jackson remains a mystery to me; I wonder what the motion for debate might have been? It is apparent that like me, he had a love of words and of poetry. I wonder what became of him, and when this volume passed from his hands and those of his family to find its place alongside so many others far less distinguished, on the shelves of a shop in Norfolk?

In case you are wondering, yes I too received a couple of school prizes, though for a pastime far less cerebral than a contribution to debate. Mine were awarded for performance on the rugby field, and I remember the somewhat awkward feelings I experienced in mounting the stage to shake hands with a long forgotten alumnus of the school before he handed over a copy of the Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, which I notice now on the shelf above my desk.

Perhaps the task being undertaken by my colleague at her old school last night may have triggered her own memories of prizes received as well as given. I am in little doubt that she too will have one or two adorning the shelves of her home.

Broadening the learning horizon could well have benefits.

How important might the learning opportunities being provide here be?

How important might the learning opportunities being provide here be?

In recent years it seems that everywhere I travel education has been reduced to a set of attainment targets. Furthermore the focus of education often appears to have been confined to a narrow and predictable channel around mathematics and science. The social sciences and arts appear less significant in the minds of many politicians and policy makers and achievements by children in these areas can easily pass unnoticed. But maybe now I am beginning to detect a small amount of challenge to this narrow view of the curriculum.

Yesterday was a day of contrasts in terms of the education related media reports that I accessed. On the morning Radio 4 Today Programme the BBC,  in one of those items that always seem to appear as “fillers” between more weighty debate, once again cited a politician (so many have done this that they all blur into one) who wishes that our schools in the UK could be more like those in Shanghai, Singapore or Korea. Leaving aside the fact that these learned politicos appear to have failed to recognise that the cultures of these countries are significantly different from our own, it is clear that the obsession with the education system in these nations is based solely upon educational attainment in mathematics and science. There is no doubt that any scrutiny of academic outcomes in these subjects reveals that China, Korea and Singapore are performing at a high level, but at what cost?

Research conducted into childhood stress and anxiety levels, published in a number of authoritative journals indicates that Chinese students report some of the highest stress levels in the world, and exhibit acute symptoms that include heightened anxiety, despair and feelings of anger towards their peers. Similar reports from Korea suggest that increased levels of bullying and an appallingly high incidence of child suicides may be directly correlated to pressure to do well in academic subjects. Every parent wants their child to do well in school, and it is right that teachers should have high expectations of their students. But perhaps this can be achieved through methods that don’t simply involve cramming for examinations, and might be better managed if greater credence was given to wider aspects of the curriculum.

Once again I found myself feeling somewhat cross that the BBC had resorted to lazy journalism in presenting an item comparing UK education to that elsewhere in the world. However, by contrast it was a news item from Asia that made me think that perhaps there is the potential for a backlash against this simplistic appraisal of the purpose of education.

Krishnan Koushik writing in the education supplement of the Deccan Herald from South India begins his article under the title “The need for reviving liberal education”  (Deccan Herald March 5th 2015) by depicting a typical scenario in which an adult asks a child how they are getting on in school. The child answers by giving his grades in maths and science, but says nothing of other subjects and certainly does not mention whether or not he enjoys schools. The adult is satisfied that he has received a reply that indicates satisfactory attainment in these two dominant subjects, therefore all must be well in this child’s education.

I should state before going any further that the use of the term “liberal” in Mr Koushik’s article will have already raised the hackles of at least one reader of this blog, who has had occasion to use this term as a derogation of my articles in his own writing in the past, but I make no apologies and neither should the journalist who within his feature makes a number of acute observations about the purpose of education.

Krishnan Koushik constructs an eloquent argument for giving greater value to the teaching of literature, the social sciences and art. With regards to the teaching of literature he states that:-

“literature is the study of life. By studying literature, we learn what it means to be human. Literature also teaches us about how powerful language can be. By studying the use of language in literature, we learn how to use the subtleties of the language to our advantage. So, literature helps us in shaping and moulding our character”. 

He goes on to advocate a broadening of our approach to the social sciences by saying:-

“When we study the social sciences, we are studying how people put their societies together and we are looking at the impacts of their decisions about how their societies should be run. By studying these things, we are becoming better informed about how societies should be put together and the intricacies involved in them”.

At no point does Krishnan Koushik deny the importance of the sciences and mathematics, but he makes a good case for ensuring that we provide children with a more holistic appreciation of the world in which they live and for which they will soon assume greater responsibility. Referring to previously revered, but sadly now more often ignored, educators of the past, including Johann Pestalozzi, David Thoreau, Francis Parker, John Dewey and Maria Montessori, Koushik makes a case for recognising the individuality of each child and provided them with a broad range of learning opportunities in which they can find their own passions and strengths. One particular phrase in his article stands out:-

 “Holistic education aims to call forth from people an intrinsic reverence for life and a passionate love of learning”.

Krishnan Koushik’s article is one of several that I have noted in the media from several parts of the world recently. It would appear that concerns are being increasingly expressed about the narrowing focus of education and in particular the marginalisation of all but a few curriculum subjects. The issues surrounding this debate are complex and I believe that many of those who advocate a focus upon science and maths, even at a cost to other subjects, often do so with a genuine concern for the needs of children. The majority of teachers with whom I converse have been expressing their concerns about the narrowing of curriculum priorities. Sadly, many of them are fearful of expressing their opinions or participating in the debate.

If you disagree with the sentiments expressed by Krishnan Koushik or the ways in which I have portrayed these in this blog, do feel free to post a reply. Healthy debate can help us all to learn and understand other’s points of view. Alternatively, if you have been incensed by the liberality of the views expressed you could try to relax by reading a good novel, visiting your local art gallery, exploring the nature of your immediate hinterland, going to the theatre or listening to Mozart or Abida Parveen. Whilst doing so you might consider how future generations will be encouraged to value and appreciate these experiences.

You can’t hit the middle of the target every time

 

It's not possible to hit the middle of the target everytime, but that shouldn't discourage us from trying.

It’s not possible to hit the middle of the target every time, but that shouldn’t discourage us from trying.

I had a brief conversation yesterday with a lady who works in one of the many offices in the university, and also happens to be the mother of a child who attends a local special school. As we both waited patiently in a queue, for a paper cup of the tepid brown substance that passes itself off in the guise of coffee, served in the university canteen, we fell into a casual conversation.

“How’s Adam (not his real name) getting on these days?” I enquired.

“He’s fine thanks,” replied Adam’s mum, “he’s doing really well at school.”

“I’m glad to hear that. I saw him recently when I visited the school, he seemed to be very happy,” I suggested.

“Oh yes, he’s really well settled,” she responded, “and making excellent progress. They set new targets for him every month and he always achieves all of them.”

Leaving the scene, gripping my purchased container of dark sludge (why do I go back for more of this unpalatable concoction?), and having made polite goodbyes, I pondered on this conversation and admit to feeling slightly troubled. It was certainly good to hear that Adam is happy and settled in school, but there is something about the target setting process that leaves me wondering.

Target setting, it seems to me, is far from being an exact science. No matter how well we know a child, there are always so many personal variables that can impact upon the ability to learn. Progress is seldom measurable in a smooth line, but tends to form a profile of humps and hollows affected by mood, health, disposition, motivation and several other factors. The use of individual education plans and more recently in the UK “learning passports” (I still await the introduction of learning visas to enable me to access geography!) has served to focus teacher attentions upon the needs of individual pupils, and to consider how these may be met in the melee of the classroom. (Though I do worry that they also tend to dwell upon learning deficits rather than pupil strengths – but that’s perhaps a discussion for another day.)  The individual education plan invariably identifies targets which it is hoped the child will achieve as a step towards greater attainment and achievement. But from where do these targets emerge? Are they simply drawn from the ether, or is there a more systematic approach to their identification?

Quite rightly, teachers will tell me that they take considerable time when planning for individual pupil needs, and that an important part of this approach is the identification of learning targets. In the best practice, teachers, parents, pupils and other professionals work together to ensure that they are in agreement and have identified targets that are meaningful and well-focused. Despite this attention to detail, target setting remains an inexact process, and one that in my experience can be as much a source of frustration as it is an aid to teaching and learning.

The very fact that Adam “always achieves his target,” makes me question the veracity of this process. In most other situations a target is something at which the marksman aims, knowing that despite his skill and best endeavours it will not always be hit. Does the fact that Adam always hits the mark mean that he is truly making outstanding progress, or might it be that the target is too easily achieved? What does the target actually mean to Adam? Or for that matter to his parents or teachers?

I’m all for aspirational teaching, and for planning that gives teachers and learners a clear direction of travel. I also believe that teachers work incredibly hard to ensure that they provide the best approaches possible to meeting the needs of their pupils. However I find myself questioning whether we necessarily understand the complexities of the systems we have put into place. It is quite easy to develop a process, get it operational and then simply go through the motions of applying this every time. We have been using individual education plans and setting targets for several decades, is it perhaps time to pause and consider whether we have got this process right? Work related to the efficacy of target setting is, to say the least, limited.

There has long been a debate about whether teaching is a science, a craft or an art, Nate Gage wrote very lucidly on this subject thirty years and more ago. Personally, I think that the finest teachers draw on elements of all three of these. This in itself may be why the concept of target setting is likely to remain a somewhat flawed, if necessary concept.

Now then, where did I put my darts?