Taking the Metro or Jumping on the Bandwagon?

Anyone taking the bus or train to work in the UK this morning would have been confronted by this headline in the popular free newspaper the Metro, creating the impression (again) that our schools are currently populated by armies of illiterate teachers who can hardly distinguish their anus from their olecranon. So let me try to put the ‘problem’ into perspective. One of my many responsibilities in a previous role as a DHT in a large secondary comprehensive school was to read, comment on and sign the twice-yearly reports for my year group – around 250 students. In the course of doing that I would regularly have to return to members of staff who had errors in their reports and ask, as diplomatically as possible, that they be re-written, to save potential embarrassment all round (Note that ’embarrassment’ is a tricky word to spell). It is a task I did not enjoy. Was it ignorance on the part of the teacher or simply the pressure of deadlines and a hundred and one other things on their minds? In my view it was much of the latter and a little bit of the former.

“Evidence presented to the Review suggested that a small, but none-the-less significant, number of initial teacher education students lack some of the fundamental attributes to become good teachers, including limited interpersonal skills and basic weaknesses in literacy and numeracy. Although the evidence was largely impressionistic and applied only to a minority of students, the concern was persistent and widespread and needs to be addressed.”

Teaching Scotland’s Future – Report of a review of teacher education in Scotland January 2011

Teachers do, occasionally, make mistakes when writing reports. But we all mistakes, don’t we? Of course we do, yet teachers, uniquely it seems among the population at large, are not allowed to. They must be above reproach, infallible, superhuman, an expectation all too easily taken up by the mainstream media. Newspapers, and newspaper journalists themselves you may have noticed, also make mistakes, despite having internal mechanisms to ensure that they don’t, a point not lost on independent ICT consultant and founder of L4L Leon Cych, who contacted the Metro and asked them about their newspaper and the role of the sub-editor. You can hear the resulting conversation here (Note that it is easy to confuse ‘hear’ and ‘here’ if you are in a hurry).


Poor spelling or a case of revenge?

At the risk of spoiling the fun for anyone who has yet to attend one of my literacy sessions with teachers, I often begin with a spelling test consisting of four or five words, offering a substantial prize for anyone who achieves full marks. Only one person has ever claimed the prize, and he admitted later that he had attended an earlier event so remembered the words, which I hadn’t changed. The moral of the story is that whether you are a teacher or just an ordinary human being, when it comes to literacy none of us is the finished article (Note the singular noun ‘none’ – no one – takes a singular verb ‘is’). The key issue is not whether you know, or think you know, everything, but whether you are aware of your weaknesses and are taking the appropriate steps to improve them.

Footnote: the most common error in the reports I was responsible for checking was a failure to distinguish between ‘practice’ and ‘practise’. When I explained the difference to one colleague I was told that I was making it up.

Of Mice, Flies and Farms: Death by Examination

I’m returning to a topic that I have written about many times in the past, but it is an issue of such fundamental importance to our education system that it can never be aired often enough. The context is Scotland but I would be willing to bet that it applies in many parts of the developed world, and it was prompted by this tweet which appeared in my Twitter timeline from Erica at the Young Adult Literature Symposium in St Louis, Missouri, last week:-

Now, while I don’t have a problem with introducing 45-year-old books to young people – and of course many of the best books  ever written are much older than that – I think implicit in that statement is the fact that when it comes to the English curriculum in schools, and those texts which candidates choose to write about in examinations, the core list of texts often seems to be set in concrete, and the same very narrow range of texts is promoted as if they were the only books ever written – Of Mice and Men anyone? Animal Farm? Lord of the Flies?

How does that reduction happen? Consider the following key outcome of the new curriculum in Scotland. Despite the language of the outcome, which suggests it was written by a committee (and believe me it was), the objective is clear and commendable – that, by the age of 15, or before in some cases, all young people should be able to say that they are regular readers and are able to make personal choices in their reading. I would have preferred it to say something along the lines of ‘Reading is an important part of my life and it is something I will continue to pursue long after I have left school’, but let’s leave that aside for the moment.

“I regularly select and read, listen to or watch texts for enjoyment and interest, and I can express how well they meet my needs and expectations and give reasons, with evidence, for my personal response. I can identify sources to develop the range of my reading.”

Curriculum for Excellence Literacy Outcome 3-11a (S1-S3)

Why is it then, when young people are able to meet this outcome by the age of 15, many of them are failing so dramatically to demonstrate this ability by the age of 16 and 17? What has happened to them in the intervening two years? Three simple words – the examination system. Have a look at some of the key points emerging from this year’s External Assessment Report for Higher English. These statements are taken directly from the report and are unaltered.

  • There was more evidence than in recent years of candidates coming to the exam with prepared answers (often on questions from recent past papers, as the appearance of key words suggested) and attempting to adapt these to ‘fit’ the questions asked.
  • The high number of choices of inappropriate choice of poem for questions 12 and 13 leads to the suspicion that significant numbers of candidates are coming to the exam with just one poem on which they are determined to answer come what may. This practice cannot be discouraged strongly enough.
  • A number of candidates are in the habit of writing at the end of most paragraphs stock phrases such as ‘….and this helped me to understand the central concerns of the text’, without ever having stated what they believed these central concerns to be, let alone how what they had just described had aided their understanding of them.
  • The term ‘theme’ continues to be used in an inappropriate way by some candidates, as if it were a ‘technique’, similar to, for example, setting, characterisation or symbolism. A proper understanding of ‘theme’ is key to the study of literature.

This is what happens when teachers are judged by the exam results of their students, when there is pressure on young people to learn a procedure which is quite alien to them, and for all of that to happen within a very short time frame. Writing ‘critical essays’ is not something which most of them will ever do again, and simply reflects an academic study of literature which is inappropriate for all but a tiny minority of students. Any love of reading has been squeezed out of them by the end of the process. How can it be that so many young people who at the age of five were reciting poems and enjoying the rhythms and patterns of language, will, by the time they sit Higher English, be thinking of poetry as that single poem which they have ‘analysed’ to death, the lines and responses to which they will have spent the best part of a year committing to memory.

There must be a better way, and there is. If Higher English is to remain in its present form – and it has seen too many ‘reforms’ in recent years to suggest that there is any appetite for further change – we need to make sure we provide a viable alternative for those young people who have genuinely developed a love for reading but not for essay-writing, and we need those people in positions of authority who talk about Higher English using expressions like ‘the gold standard’ and ‘benchmark’ to think more carefully about their own language. More importantly, we need to recognise that a love of reading, and by implication a love of learning, SHOULD BE THE NUMBER ONE  GOAL FOR ALL LEARNERS.  When a young person is able to ask, in response to the literacy outcome above, “I’ve just read this. What do you suggest I should read next?” you know as a teacher you have done something invaluable.

You may also be interested to read Braintrack’s The State of Young Readers in America

For my extensive list of fiction for 10-14 yr-olds, each text summarised and reviewed, click here.