Thursday, January 03, 2013

Educational policy

As a first year tutor with the Open University,  I am used to students arriving with a whole range of abilities and learnings.  What strikes me more forcefully as time goes by is that there are enormous variations in their ability to think for themselves and to take charge of their learning. I am driven more and more to the conclusion that where they have learned to think, it is in spite of rather than because of any education they have received.

Age is not a significant variable as far as I can see.  Like most generalisations that has lots of nuances, but the nub of it is that most new students, of whatever age, arrive expecting to be taught rather than expecting to learn. The result is that I spend a lot of my time trying to get them to engage with the module material and their own learning in an entirely new way. Some take to it fine, some resist – sometimes quite strongly. I have never had the experience that many of my colleagues apparently have of students assuming they have bought the marks they want, but it takes a lot sometimes to break down the expectation that they should be told what to think rather than how to think.

I don't blame the students for this. I remember my own trajectory through learning, primarily in the 60s and 70s, a golden age according to some, a mess of political correctness according to others. The school and the university I attended were among the “finest”, but it was only in my third year at university that I began to get a glimmer of how I could actually learn rather than just absorbing what I was told to absorb. I spent another couple of decades gradually understanding more and more that I could think for myself.

My students are smart, almost without exception. Even those whose modes of expression are, well, basic. The smartness has not been channelled, and in many cases has actually been compromised by the system in which they have been taught. This remains true with those whose schooling is very recent. Constant improvements in grades does not seem to be matched by students' ability to make use of their innate gifts.

It may seem paradoxical, but I don't blame schools or teachers for this. I think we have a lot of good schools, and I think we have a lot of good teachers. What we have, however, is a failure of educational policy, and a failure that has been persistent, probably for three decades. The be all and end all of a school's life is the league tables. The easy and false assumption that has been made by every education minister since Kenneth Baker is that good grades mean good learning. But the problem with target driven systems is that if you set people targets, they will ignore everything else in their determination to reach the target. It's bad enough if the target is just a bonus, as it is in so many flawed employee performance schemes, but when the institution stands or falls by whether it meets its targets, as is now the case with schools, everything else will go to pot. The average teachers, the good teachers, and the best teachers all know it doesn't matter a stuff what their pupils learn as long as they pass the exam. The result is pupils who are well versed in how to pass an exam without having having learned all they could of the unexaminable skills that good schools could give them. One student of mine last year, straight from A-levels, said that he didn't learn anything in his last three months at school - he and his classmates were getting nothing other than coaching in how to pass the exam. So much gets lost to the tyranny of measurement. And in fact I'm not sure that any recent education minister, Michael Gove being an egregious example, knows what education is for.

We need good citizens and good workers. That is, if there are any jobs left for them. Citizens need to be able to think. (A good citizen is a critical one, although the government thinks a good citizen is a compliant one.) Workers need, above all these days, to be able to think. The league table system seems designed to iron the thinking out of them, while ironing in the ability to pass exams, and to recite Cromwell's dates. Creativity, which used to be an optional extra, but is now a requirement of modern life, is stifled too often by inappropriate targets. It doesn't work. Not nearly as well as it should do. As I said, we have a lot of good schools and a lot of good teachers. They often succeed. But they do so in spite of educational policy, not because of it.


Out and about said...

Some interesting points Rob. I feel that the fact that education is so politicised is one of the reasons that people are not taught to think. The constant so called innovations made by successive governments to 'raise standards' combined with one of the most punitive regulatory systems in the world have left all but the bravest teachers to teach to the latest test. Thinking just gets in the way.........I think that any teacher would agree that the most valuable learning is often the most unexpected...the result of debate which really gets to the heart of deep rather than 'surface' learning. There is too little of that around these days..not only in schools but in HE too.

catherine said...

somehow there is an idea that universities are where we learn to think critically - perhaps this could be done at an earlier stage.

Perhaps if we could be more honest eg about how far it's possible to grade things - eg as shown by how wide the variation in marking giving by a range of teachers on the same script, that would help shift the mindset of absorbing, rather than engaging.

Rob Parsons said...

Thank you for your comment, Catherine. And I think you're right. We could teach critical thinking much better through every stage of education. And we could be a lot more open about how assessment actually works. That would include more widespread use of practices like peer assessment. But I fear that to do that, we would have to have a complete revolution in educational policy: Those who govern us would have to accept that education should be aimed at enabling people to think for themselves rather than aimed at enabling people to work for others. That will be a long road. :-(