Now, back to the inconveniently elevated filter. I chose to give way to another’s opinion, despite having evidence that it might be flawed; instead taking the longer view that if it really mattered it could be fixed and the loss of goodwill an argument would have caused would make future interaction more difficult. Does this make me meek, I wonder? No, it certainly doesn’t, but it suggests a willingness to become more so, which might just be all that God asks of me.
My last post was a grumpy diatribe about a member of HM Government, amongst other things. In particular, I took exception to his educational philosophy, alleging, probably correctly, that he really doesn’t know what he’s talking about and his rather pompous comments about the teaching of history have come in for a well-earned stint at the pillory. He has quaint notions that a grasp of the chronology of Kings and Queens of England is going to somehow bring the broad sweep of history and hence, presumably, some degree of national identity to people whose immediate ancestors may have come from some far-flung corner of the Empire. It might be cynical to suggest it, but it looks as if he’s slipping patriotism under the educational radar, thereby invoking national pride and by inference, more Tory votes.It won’t work. Any of it. For a long time it’s become clear to me that the Facebook generation quite legitimately feels that when it walks through the door of a school, it is stepping back in time, the worst possible outcome for the young. Restrictions on mobile phones and use of tablet technology forces participants to engage with fusty old ideas like the use of an index in a textbook, use an actual pen to write with and be able to do the kind of arithmetic which a machine does instantaneously. I love the sensual sweep of a pen on a page and, although it might be thought outrageous to ask, how many of us regularly write things down? With a pen? How many of us calculate our supermarket bill in our heads, when a clearly itemised bill is routinely presented to us at checkout? I do, but I’m a bit strange like that. More and more, people can rely on a tablet to scratch down ideas, write notes, do simple calculations, to check prices, in other words, to run the equivalent of an Empire. It was the British who came up with the whole notion of an Education, since they had a business to run on which the sun never set and as long as all the worker bees who made sure that the system ran smoothly had a basic and identical grasp of fundamental communication methods, supplied in a neat lookalike package, a clerk in Bangalore was interchangeable with another in Bradford. The British invented micromanagement then exported it worldwide. Came across an interesting TED talk the other day – worth a look – which made the rather radical assertion that we don’t really need schools in the traditional sense at all any more. An ex-teacher of computer programming made a hole in the wall of his institution into a next door slum, into which he installed a computer connected to the Internet. Children gathered and without instruction had figured out in a few hours what it could do for them. They taught each other how to work the mouse, how to browse and so on. Further experiments revealed that answers to very difficult questions could be discovered by nine-year-olds with access to appropriate technology. So, if a group of ragged slum kids in southern India really, really want to know which King followed Henry II, what he looked like, achieved, and how he died, they can find out in a snap. All most diverting. But, it still isn’t enough because knowledge without understanding is like having wealth with nothing to spend it on. So, the educational behemoth won’t be diverted so easily and will lumber along for a few more decades yet in pretty much its present form. I wish I knew what it would look like years from now, but I don’t. And, I don’t think anyone else does either.
|Pay attention, everyone!|
A lifetime ago, I used to try to teach people things, getting them to a place where they could compete with the best, get in to good universities, follow careers and generally prepare them to be productive members of society. It wasn’t a bad way to spend one’s working life, I suppose, and over the years, I’ve seen the whole educational kaleidoscope played out in a multitude of ways. It seems obvious that someone who gets a class to make cardboard models of a Roman fort is made of different stuff intellectually to a colleague teaching how to approximate square roots, say, by the Newton-Raphson method which isn’t particularly difficult but requires a different level of concentration and engagement. (Be honest. How many of you clicked the link?) But, what is taught is of much less consequence than how it is taught. Different methods demonstrate that teaching is, of course, mixed ability, rather like the classes that sit in front of them. Engaging a class is a craft, requiring the expenditure of a good deal of emotional energy. Good teachers are passionate about this. They hope people ask deep questions, develop ideas and use what they have learned. Holding a class in the palm of one’s hand is worth more than apes, ivory or peacocks, as are the magic words ‘I never understood that before…’. But, it’s not always like that. Sometimes, the dynamics don’t work. Some students simply want to disrupt, because they can and it amuses them to do so. I once taught in a school in Kuwait where behaviour was so bad that teachers ran, sobbing, from the room or refused to cross the threshold. One boy – his father owned the school – took three of his friends roof-climbing instead of attending his English class and was helpless with laughter when the principal tried to threaten, then coax him down as they bombarded him with nuts.
|‘Education, education, education’ (Tony Blair|
Meantime, the rest of the class, fully aware of where the absentees were, rioted quietly as the teacher waved his arms about.
Two bad back-to-back classes can leave even experienced practitioners feeling drained and eviscerated. What, I wonder, makes a good teacher? I used to mentor new entrants to the profession, jump through endless hoops to justify any comments I made and the conclusions I came to. The bottom line, however, was really very simple. Assuming a candidate was appropriately well-versed in his particular corpus of knowledge, after about twenty minutes watching them in action I could tell whether someone was going to make it or not. Mostly it was body language, quick-wittedness and an indefinably Thespian feel to events in the classroom which made up my mind. And, mostly, I was right.
Here’s the little clever-trousers snapped for posterity when still a ghastly oik at the back of the room, peppering his teachers with questions to which he already knew the answers. When he applied for a job at Conservative Research Department he was turned down because he was ‘insufficiently political’, also ‘insufficiently conservative’. He then got a job as a journalist, which he seemed reasonably good at. So, what have we got so far? Slick operator, both verbally and on paper, with a chip on his shoulder. After less than seven years in Parliament, he snags a Cabinet job about which he knows nothing and it’s time to get his own back, which he seems to be doing with remarkable ruthlessness. Clicking on the cartoon makes it larger.
|‘Independence Day’ starring Michael Gove|
He is going to make kids memorise stuff again, which isn’t of itself a bad thing, unless it happens to be the chronology of the British Monarchy instead of the War Poets. The first will make you a republican, the second a pacifist. Go figure. All this floating by rote will have to be done with larger classes because some previous incompetent hadn’t figured out that more kids of a particular age will need more space in which to house them to memorise stuff, so groundsmen’s sheds all over the country will now become music rooms. He’s been told that he has to big up the teaching profession and tell everyone how wonderful it is when it’s transparently obvious that he thinks they’re a crowd of indolent, time-serving lollygaggers. No wonder the NUT tabled a motion of no confidence in him at their 2013 Conference and, to quote the gentleman out of context, returning his own words to him, when he “weeps hot tears for a life spent serving an ideology of wickedness will he ever be worth listening to”. The ideology of wickedness, is, of course, his own flamboyantly inflatable ego.
|Rosalind Franklin b July 25th 1920|
Today is Rosie Franklin’s birthday – there’s even a Google logo of her. She was a brilliant scholar, my professor’s professor at Birkbeck, a pioneer in DNA crystallography and was robbed of the Nobel by Watson and Crick. Doubtless for her, the latter was true.
The media has been in overflow about the Edward Snowden affair which has raised all kinds of nasty speculation about what information is actually recorded, sifted, analysed and archived by governments and their shadowy apocalyptic horsemen whose motivation, allegedly, is to uncover terrorist activity, but the reality is, finding out everything about everybody might just be quite useful one day. Everyone is asking whether he is some kind of Assange clone – a hero for opening what looks to be a particularly gnarly can of worms, or a treasonous hound who has, in some as yet unspecified fashion, made some of his country’s best-kept secret methods available to a foreign and generally not very benevolent power. As the story unfolds, it seems more probable that the latter will turn out to be closer to the truth. Speculation is feverish as to why he abandoned – or fled – his Hawaii apartment, citing a need for medical treatment abroad, then surfacing in Hong Kong – go figure – his data would be a gold mine to Chinese intelligence services and the Chinese are one of the few people on the planet prepared to stand up to the Americans. The Americans are looking increasingly desperate to get their hands on him and the country hopping he has already done suggests that it has been carefully orchestrated by people with considerably more political savvy than he has. Today, he is pathetically marooned, shuffling around inside the transit zone at Sheremetyevo airport and considering at least three asylum options. In theory, he could stay there for years and where he ends up is anyone’s guess, but I can’t help wondering if some tragic accident might befall him en route. His condition is a metaphor for his own actions – he is as lost in real space as his data is in cyberspace.