October 14, 2005


I recently mentioned Melanie Phillips, and I'd like to return to the topic of her book All Must Have Prizes

I found her book infuriating: she makes a lot of points badly. But somewhere in there she makes a few good points extremely well, points that I've been pondering as I attempt to coax, wheedle, bully, tease, my students into being more autonomous learners.

The main point of her book, which is about education in the UK, is that despite the attempts by both Conservative and Labour (Blair's) governments to improve standards, and despite the creation of an official watchdog committee, Ofsted, and despite the fact that, apparently, an ever increasing number of British students are getting ever higher grades at A- level, literacy and numeracy is on the decline; academic standards are on the decline. Philips claims that this fact is so unpalatable that many refuse to accept the evidence.

Here are a few quotes to give you an idea of her crusade, and her style:
  • Many university dons are in a state of utter despair about the low levels of knowledge presented by the young people turning up to read for their degrees. p.3

  • At some point in the last few decades, the educational world came to agree that its overriding priority was to make children feel good about themselves: none of them should feel inferior to anyone else or a failure. At the same time, such people came to believe that children from relatively impoverished backgrounds, who unarguably started at a clear disadvantage, were somehow incapable of learning what other, more forward, children could learn. There was of course not a shred of evidence for such a belief. What disadvantaged children needed above all was more structured teaching, greater attention paid to those elementary rules of language or arithmetic and a heavier emphasis on order. These were all features which were second nature to those children from more favoured homes but which tended to be lacking in their own. But the educational world, heavily influenced by other profound currents of thinking which all conspired to undermine every form of external authority… decided in its wisdom that disadvantaged children simply couldn’t learn those ‘difficult’ things. p.12

  • Cambridge University simplified its maths syllabus, traditionally the most difficult in the country, because of reduced knowledge by candidates. p.13

  • The emphasis on the practical applications of maths and the obsession with presenting problems ‘in context’ – in other words, relating them to real life situations –had denigrated the primary importance of maths as a training for the mind. Schools, said the [1995 London Mathematical Society] report, had shifted from teaching core techniques to time-consuming activities such as investigations, problem-solving and data surveys….The importance attached to process failed to recognize that to gain genuine understanding it was necessary first to achieve ‘robust technical fluency’… p.14

  • As in so many subject areas, the retreat from knowledge into subjectivity had been driven along by the educationists in the universities….The educationists’ absolute horror of ‘rote learning’, repetition and memory work meant that they were fundamentally opposed to the very techniques which were essential for children to achieve mathematical fluency. p. 15

  • "There's a feeling that if you ask a kid to do something, that's enough, that practice is drudgery. There's this fear of boring the children. But that’s a challenge for the teacher." (Peter Saunders). p.16

  • "The first year university lecturer is thus confronted with a very genial anarchy. The students are pleasant enough; but they are mathematically amoral….They are reasonably intelligent, but have been deprived of the key components of the necessary mathematical (and educational) diet." (Gardiner). p.18

a very genial anarchy... that's a pretty good description of what I face.
The book is not only about maths education, by the way:
  • "But one big thing that's gone from pretty well every [examining] board is translation from English into German. The reasons given for that disappearance are spurious: that it’s not a realistic test and that pupils wouldn't be asked to this in real life. But the real reason they've dropped it is that it's the acid test. It disguises whole areas of weakness, not just in grammar but also that fact that students can get away with a minimal vocabulary." (David Horrocks, lecturer in German at Keele University). p.21

  • "In terms of their intelligence and potential, today's undergraduates are as good as anyone; but they are not being given the tool kit." (Horrocks). p 22-23

  • ..."after years of education in a foreign language, children may not have mastered even the basics: ‘The curriculum tells us to teach only in the target language to make them develop the necessary skills; they have to listen speak, read and write in that language. But you don't teach them the rudiments of the language and if you do teach them grammar at all it will be after they've been expose to these patterns…After three years, the children's performance has not improved and their competence is non-existent….they've got such little understanding of the language they will go nowhere." p. 24

  • There's actually little chance these children will understand French language patterns since they have never been taught English sentence structure either. But they're told this doesn't matter. "They've been told that learning a foreign language is simply about getting the gist. So we're teaching the children constantly to interpret the text, like look and see, interpreting the pictures on the page. It's like treating language as a puzzle. There's no structure, no boundaries; the children just pick and mix." p. 24

  • This retreat from the rules of language and arithmetic is also helping to knock the moral stuffing out of our culture. It gives children the very clear message that there is no right or wrong; instead, everything is good enough as long as it is approximate and other people can ‘get the gist’….Accuracy and correctness are not merely undervalued but now are positively disparaged as elitist. A fundamentalist egalitarianism has taken over in which rules are taboo because some people may break them. Since it is no longer permitted to have a hierarchy of right or wrong behaviour, everyone must be equally rule-less…It was to have been the educational no-pain, no-shame nirvana in which no-one would ever again be made to feel a failure. In reality, all are now failed; and those who are failed most grievously and disastrously by the collapse of educational authority are the children at the bottom of the social heap. p.28

Do you get a sense of the barely suppressed outrage, the tone of any-two-year-old-could-tell-you-this-won't-work impatience? Group-work, project-work, communicative methods and student-centred teaching, "getting the gist", are all swept aside as obvious quackery without any real arguments being proposed, and little attempt to examine the thinking supporting such approaches.

Yet despite this, I found some food for thought which led to intriguing questions:
  • Are my students on task most of the time?

  • Is the standard of work they are doing satisfactory?

  • Are we underestimating students' potential? Are we accepting lower standards of work because we have made excuses for them in our minds?

  • Are students able (or beginning to develop the ability) to choose their own materials and activities, and set their own objectives?

The book opened my eyes to the possibility that I might be so enamoured of the idea of autonomous language-learners, of autonomy as A GOOD THING, that I might be blinding myself to evidence that my attempts to lead them in that direction were not working.
More anon.


AJ said...

I agree.. its always good to have our assumptions challenged and to ask... "is what Im doing really effective?"

However, one question I would have about this woman's criticisms... are any of her assertions backed by solid (peer reviewed, multiple studies, well designed, etc, etc.) research... or is she just a conservative ranting against change?

Marco Polo said...

Are you kidding?!? The woman's a journalist! What's worse, a journalist with an AGENDA! But I do think she's got more than yer average "back-to-basics" ranter. I disagree with a lot of what she writes, but her main point prompted quite a bit of fruitful soul-searching. A question I'm asking myself now, for instance, is this: What if, by my attempts to introduce students to autonomy, instead of reducing the stress and anxiety, I'm adding to it? Would I spot it? Or would I be so enamoured of my belief that learners construct their own knowledge that I would doggedly pursue my chosen course regardless?