Testing Times

the wireThere is an episode in the American hit TV series The Wire (Season 4) which will resonate not only with teacher-viewers in the USA but with many in the UK as well. Roland ‘Prez’ Pryzbylewski, a former officer in the Major Crimes Unit, has left the force after inadvertently killing a fellow officer in Series 3, and has re-trained to become a maths teacher in inner-city Baltimore. Initially, he struggles to come to grips with the job despite his best efforts, and the kids refuse to play ball no matter how many approaches he tries, including the introduction of card games into his lessons. The less than subtle message is that teaching is tough, no matter how ‘tough’ a guy (or gal) you think you are. Eventually however, Pryzbylewski’s hard work starts to pay off and most of the kids are beginning to recognise that – hey – he really is in this with them, when all his efforts are suddenly undermined. The district authorities have announced that their literacy scores are too low, and for the coming session the focus will be on raising attainment in literacy. For Prez and his colleagues, what this means is reading directly to a group of kids who are not listening, and administering tests which even he doesn’t understand. Not one person in the school, including the headteacher, believes in what they are doing, but the future of the school depends, literally, on their going along with it.

Watching this scenario play out, you find yourself laughing uneasily at the absurdity of the situation, while realising that perhaps that it isn’t so far from the truth – an education system where statistics and targets rule, and teachers are forced to abandon their better instincts and teach to the test.

lifeRoland Pryzbylewski’s plight came back to me this week as I finished reading  The Life and Death of Secondary Education for All by Professor Richard Pring, former Director of the Department of Educational Studies at Oxford University. A refreshing analysis of the state of education in the UK, with a particular focus on England and Wales, the purpose of the book is, in Professor Pring’s own words, ” to advocate a secondary education for all which embraces a wider vision of learning, a distinctive role for the teacher in providing the cultural basis for that vision, and a provision of opportunities through which all young people (however modest their circumstances) might have a sense of pride and fulfilment.” In Pring’s view, ‘education for all’ is still a viable goal, but only if we are prepared to address the fundamental question of its purpose, rather than simply accepting many of the assumptions of the past fifty years. The key question as far as he is concerned is, “What counts as education – or, more accurately, an educated person – in this day and age?” According to the author, those who doubt the viability of a genuine ‘education for all’, including the current Secretary of State Michael Gove, rarely address that question, preferring instead to examine how they might do the same things better:-

“However, ‘reform’, so-called, too often begins with qualifications, examinations, institutional provision, paths of progression. All those are very important, but their value lies in the support they give to learners and to their sense of fulfilment. We need to start with what it means to learn (practically, theoretically, morally). We need to question critically the value of that learning. We need also to respond to the many different needs of the learner and of a democratic society into which they are entering.”

I would wholeheartedly recommend The Life and Death.. to anyone involved in secondary education, including, and perhaps especially,  Michael Gove. The key themes for me are these:-

  • There needs to be less top-down control from government and local authorities, not more; teachers and schools are reluctant to innovate for fear of failure
  • There needs to be greater opportunities for teachers to work together in planning the curriculum and their own professional development
  • There needs to be a redirection of resources to those most in need; the single most significant factor in the success or failure of an individual in the system is poverty
  • There needs to be less reliance on performance targets which lead to a ‘teaching-to-the-test mentality’
  • There needs to be a re-evaluation of the purpose of education which has personal development at its centre
  • There needs to be a more robust debate on what it means to be a ‘citizen’ and the concept of the pursuit of the common good
  • There needs to be a greater role for practical learning and knowledge for all – not to be confused with vocational skills or learning for so-called ‘non-academics’
  • Finally, while developing the individual is important, learning to live and work fruitfully in groups is essential to quality learning

“The curriculum, therefore, is not the means to a fixed outcome, but the engagement, assisted by the teacher, with a body of knowledge (theoretical and practical) through which learners come to understand and act intelligently within the physical, social and moral worlds they inhabit.”

In wishing you all the best for 2013, I leave you with a letter from this week’s Guardian, which sums up admirably much of what is currently wrong with secondary education in the UK, and which frustrates the lives of the many dedicated professionals working within it. May Professor Boyle’s wishes also come true.

Letter

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Visual Literacy – No Longer a Luxury

We are fast approaching that time of year when we gather together to celebrate the birth of the moving image. More television – and especially films on television – will be watched in the next three weeks than at any other time of the year. Living, as we do, in a predominantly visual age, surrounded by moving image texts, one would think it almost perverse for schools to ignore the extent to which these texts shape and influence our daily lives. Yet teachers still often find it difficult to justify using film as a medium in the classroom when they should be concentrating on raising ‘traditional’ literacy standards, and this despite the fact that various studies have recognised that working with moving image texts can improve those very skills. Digital Beginnings, an extensive study carried out by Jackie Marsh and colleagues at Sheffield University in 2005 concluded that in England “the introduction of popular culture, media and/or new technologies into the communications, language and literacy curriculum has a positive effect on the motivation and engagement of children in learning”, that “practitioners report that it has a positive impact on children’s progress in speaking and listening….”, that “parents feel that media education should be included in the school curriculum” and  that “this should be so from when children are very young.” In 2006, an independent evaluation of Scottish Screen‘s MIE (Moving Image Education) project in Brechin, conducted by the University of Glasgow, reported that ‘all teachers were aware of a significant impact of MIE on pupils’ listening and talking skills….by the second round of interviews, teachers reported significant developments in writing skills.’

Cartoon by deleuran at www.toonpool.com

Cartoon by deleuran at http://www.toonpool.com

Most young people have watched countless hours of film and television before they enter pre-school education, and already they have set about building, in their heads, a rich audio-visual library. Unfortunately, it is most often a library – to extend the metaphor –  in which the texts are simply piled up in a disorderly heap in the middle of the floor. Rarely do they have any understanding that what they are watching and listening to is a sophisticated text which has been painstakingly constructed and edited, and not simply the result of pointing a camera at real-life and real-time events.

In order to illustrate this point, in the course of preparing this post I contacted the Dutch filmmaker Michael Dudok De Wit, creator of the hauntingly beautiful animation Father and Daughter, which won the Academy Award for Best Short Film in 2000, and asked him how long it took to make (the film itself is eight and a half minutes long and not a single frame is wasted.) This was his response:-

“It’s exactly as you say, animated films like these belie their complexity. It was a challenge to make the final result look simple and whole, but this challenge was enjoyable and very motivating. I worked on the film about four years on and off; I interrupted the production to teach and to do some commercial work. Altogether it took me about two years to make the film (writing, direction, most of the animation and all the backgrounds). I had one animator helping me for roughly four months and one assistant animator for two-three months. Two technical experts did the scanning, colouring, camera movements and compositing (combining all the different layers) for about three-four months altogether. The music composer and sound person each worked for about week, and finally, the film had two producers (for international funding reasons) who altogether devoted several weeks of their time each. One could say that if one person would have done everything alone, the film would have taken three years to make.”

With best wishes,

Michael

Since it is unlikely that children are going to be taught to ‘read’ moving image texts at home any time soon, it seems to me that teachers responsible for the development of literacy therefore have a responsibility, not only to use moving image texts in their classrooms, but to teach film literacy as part of the mainstream curriculum. In order to do this, teachers themselves need to be familiar with some basic concepts relating to films and filmmaking, including a vocabulary which allows them to discuss – and possibly create – moving image texts with their students.

If you are thinking of introducing moving image texts into the classroom the key to success, as with printed texts, is to begin with short films. A full-length feature film is a hugely complex piece of work and can be quite daunting to a teacher and students hoping to engage in critical analysis, while at the same time there are many advantages to using short films in the classroom. Shorts can be played in their entirety within one lesson while longer films lose their impact by being viewed over a number of lessons or by being screened only in extract form; the short running time of the films makes it possible for repeated viewings, allowing teachers and pupils to become quickly familiar with the texts and to explore them in more detail. Short films, like short stories, are not governed by the same conventions as longer films, and often provoke stronger responses from their audience. Finally, film and print, while different in many ways, are also very closely allied, so that the study of film can be used as a vehicle to improve the traditional literacies of reading, writing, talking and listening, and, importantly, film is an inclusive medium, often accessible to pupils who are more visual learners and who otherwise may feel that they have little to contribute. But don’t just take my word for it. Here is the celebrated film director Martin Scorsese talking about the importance of visual literacy.

See also my Ten Tools for Reading Film

See previous post for the best sites to find short films for free

Find some amazing resources at The Literacy Shed

Further Reading: Download a copy of Moving Image Education in Scotland here.

Write It Out Loud

Anyone who knows me will know that I am a big fan of reading aloud as a means of developing understanding as well as promoting enjoyment in reading. It is commonly accepted that when children are read to on a regular basis by an adult, their chances of success in formal education increase dramatically; there are very few children who do not like listening to a story or a poem being read to them with great expression by an able reader. Some of the best teachers I know will read to their students daily, demonstrating to them the benefits and the joy of that shared experience.

However, there is another, arguably more significant role for reading aloud which is often overlooked, and that is its use by students themselves as a strategy to improve writing. Teachers seem more reluctant in the age of technology to encourage reading aloud as a strategy, particularly for older students, though ironically it is the ready availability of technology which makes recording and listening simpler than ever before. As this presentation from Peter Walsh at McMaster University in Canada neatly demonstrates, for those students who do not yet have a firm grasp of language and grammar, reading their work aloud, either to themselves or to someone else, allows them to hear their weaknesses, whereas simply re-reading with the eyes often has little or no effect when it comes to better writing. A further benefit to this technique is that when the developing writer is struggling to find the right expression, reading or speaking their thoughts aloud before committing them to paper can often make the difference between acceptable and accomplished.