Here Come The Vikings. With Apples.

vikings-season-2-02There is a story, most likely apocryphal, about a primary teacher who had engaged her pupils in a lengthy project about the Vikings. Anxious to establish what they had learned as a result of their collective effort, she set about giving them a short test. ‘What did the Vikings come in?’ she asked her eager charges. ‘Boats,’ suggested the first child with his hand up. ‘No, James. What were you taught?’ ‘Longboats,’ offered Maria. ‘No, Maria, you haven’t been listening’, admonished the teacher. ‘Rowing boats,’ piped up Charlie from the back of the room.

Exasperated, the teacher raised her voice. ‘Hoardes,’ she shrieked. ‘The Vikings came in hoardes!’

What makes the story funny – I hope you’ll agree – is that there is an element of truth in this game of ‘guess what is in the teacher’s head’. We have all witnessed it, and indeed as teachers, most of us have indulged in it at one time or other.

That story came into my head this week as I was reading about the Conservative Government’s plans to introduce re-sits for those young people in England who get ‘poor results’ in their Standard Assessment Tests (SATs) at the end of their primary education, with Prime Minister David Cameron promising ‘more rigour, zero tolerance of failure and mediocrity’ in schools (read the full story here).

Many politicians love tests, because like the terms ‘rigour’ and ‘zero tolerance’, they create the impression that you are doing something to improve the education system, even if your actions and policies tell a different story. There is no evidence, and there never will be, that more tests mean better learning; the routes to better learning are much more complex, and require a far greater degree of trust and patience than most politicians are prepared to invest in the system, especially when the curriculum is seen exclusively as the means of dragging a country out of an economic mess.

testBut it doesn’t stop there. In the same week, it was also announced that the UK Government is considering the introduction of National Reference Tests to help set GCSE grade boundaries (full story here). A spokesperson for the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) said that the aim is ‘to monitor the performance of each year’s GCSE cohort’ and ‘to give examiners a reference point for differences in ability between different year groups. The results would allow Ofqual to make objective judgements on whether to allow grades to rise and allay suggestions of grade inflation.’

The possibility of not only introducing more tests, but introducing a test to test the tests, prompted this wonderful reaction from the arch-critic of government policy, poet and Professor of Children’s Literature at Goldsmith’s, University of London, Michael Rosen.

Guide to Education.

You get education in schools.
To find out how much education you get,
the government gives you tests.
Before you do the tests
the government likes it if you are put on
different tables that show how well or badly
you are going to do in the tests.
The tests test whether they
have put you on the right table.
The tests test whether you know what you’re
supposed to know.
don’t try to get to know any old stuff like
‘What is earwax?’ or ‘how to make soup’.
The way to know things you’re supposed to know
is to do pretend tests.
When you do the pretend tests
you learn how to think in the way that tests
want you to think.
The more practice you do,
the more likely it is that you won’t make the mistake
of thinking in any other way other than in
the special test way of thinking.
Here’s an example:
The apples are growing on the tree.
What is growing on the tree?
If you say, ‘leaves’, you are wrong.
It’s no use you thinking that when apples are on a tree
there are usually leaves on the tree too.
There is only one answer. And that is ‘apples’.
All other answers are wrong.
If you are the kind of person that thinks ‘leaves’ is a
good answer, doing lots and lots and lots of practice tests
will get you to stop thinking that ‘leaves’ is a good answer.
Doing many, many practice tests will also make it
very likely that there won’t be time for you to go out
and have a look at an apple tree to see what else
grows on apple trees. Like ants. Or mistletoe.
Education is getting much better these days
because there is much more testing.
Remember, it’s ‘apples’ not ‘leaves’.


The Power of Poetry

April is the cruelest month, according to TS Eliot in his famous modernist poem of 1922, The Wasteland.  However, it is also National Poetry Month, and  LitWorld, the global literacy organisation, is celebrating the power and spirit of words by inviting you to help to compose a Global Poem for Change. The American-born poet, novelist and somgwriter Naomi Shihab Nye has kicked it off with the  first line:

I send my words out into the air, listening for yours from everywhere.

What words do you send out into the air?

What words do you listen for? 

Celebrate Poetry Month and create a Global Poem for Change with LitWorld!

Submit a line of your own at and watch your poem grow at

Reading Alive

The Kindle from Amazon

Despite reports of its imminent demise, it would appear that reading is very much alive as we prepare to exit the first decade of the twenty-first century. While the advent of electronic ‘readers’ has been cursed by some as the end of books – and in a few extreme cases, civilisation – the reality is that the new reading platforms may in fact be the re-launch that many books have been waiting for.

With sales of the Amazon Kindle and Apple’s iPad each sitting around the ten million mark already, it seems that more people than ever are reading books – including classic literary texts, most of which are out of copyright and therefore free to download – bringing many texts, which would otherwise be collecting dust, to a whole new readership. English professor John Sutherland of University College London describes the phenomenon as ‘creating an immense public library without walls’, adding that ebook readers are ‘the saviour of book reading, not its death.’

Apple's iPad and Bookstore

The trend is only likely to increase in 2011 as Google brings its eBooks to the UK. Already operating in the US, Google eBooks will work in tandem with the new Google eBookstore which has more than 3 million books available. Uniquely, it would seem, Google eBooks are designed to be ‘open’, meaning that they are compatible with a range of devices from netbooks to smartphones to tablets and e-readers. You can buy, store and read Google eBooks in the cloud. Which means you can access your ebooks like you would messages in Gmail or photos in Picasa – using a free, password-protected Google account.

A Poetry Book

Personally, I don’t own an e-reader yet, but I’m guessing it’s just a matter of time. I do know someone, however, who needs to read like most of us need to breathe, and her relationship with her new iPad has been a revelation over the past few months. Already they are inseparable. Apart from the obvious advantage of all her books in one place, the sharpness of the text, the clean lines of the device and the built-in dictionary are all part of the general appeal. She did appreciate though, on Christmas morning, a beautifully wrapped, crisply-new, paper and card, touchy-feely copy of Seamus Heaney’s  Human Chain. Books aren’t dead. We’re only discovering new ways to deliver them.

No Ordinary Genius

This weekend sees the 100th anniversary of the birth of Norman MacCaig, arguably Scotland’s greatest poet since Robert Burns.

To recognise this landmark in Scottish cultural history, a number of events are taking place across the country, many of them low-key affairs in keeping with the modesty of the man himself.

I had the great pleasure of meeting the poet towards the end of his life, an experience which had a profound effect on my personal and professional outlook on life.

The Scottish Review has generously allowed me to reminisce in the pages of their online magazine. You can read the article here.

Edwin Morgan 1920-2010

I just heard the sad news of the death of  Edwin Morgan, Scotland’s first Poet Laureate and last survivor of that iconic group of seven who revived our reputation as a centre for literature and the arts in the middle years of the twentieth century –

Edwin Morgan aged 89. February 2010. Photo by Alex Boyd

McDiarmid, Garioch, MacCaig, Crichton Smith, Mackay Brown, Sorley MacLean, and of course Morgan himself. Names to strike fear into the defence of any poetic opposition lineup.

The first time I met Edwin Morgan was when I was in my second year at Glasgow University and he became my English tutor. In my youthful ignorance I had no idea of course of his own significance as a poet, nor of his growing international reputation, but his tolerance of my ignorance of literature, and life in general, was a measure of the extent of his humanity. In years to come, like many other English teachers, I was to draw extensively on his hugely imaginative and wide-ranging poetic canon for classroom material – it never failed to engage the young people to whom it was introduced or to provoke a response, even from the least likely members of the class.

The next and only other time I met him was many years later. I had been invited by a couple of friends to Mauchline Burns Club‘s annual celebration of the life of Robert Burns, and Morgan was the guest speaker. After delivering a particularly erudite, and some might argue controversial, Immortal Memory, he was thanked by the chair and invited to deliver one of his own poems. Again, eschewing the easy option, given that the audience consisted largely of men brought up on a diet of whisky, haggis and rhyming couplets, he chose to recite The Loch Ness Monster’s Song, prompting one inebriated listener to exclaim, ‘Ca’ that f*****g poetry?’

I’m sure the man of letters didn’t hear it, but if he had, I’m equally sure it would have produced a wry smile, for the true mark of the man was not in the poetry but in himself.

The Loch Ness Monster’s Song

Sssnnnwhuf ff fll ?

Hnwhuffl hhnnwfl hnfl hfl ?

Gdroblboblhobngbl gbl gl g g g g glbgl.

Drublhaflablhaflubhafgabhaflhafl fl fl-

gm grawwwww grf grawf awfgm graw gm.

Hovoplodok-doplodovok-plovodokot-doplodokosh ?

Splgraw fok fok splgrafhatchgabrlgabrl fok splfok !

Zgra kra gka fok !

Grof grawff gahf ?

Gombl mbl bl-

blm plm,

blm plm,

blm plm,