Thursday, September 26, 2013

Fashion and shame in education

The problem with teachers is not that they are rebellious; on the contrary, they are conservative and conformist. As I said a few days ago ("Teacher is a fool", 22 September), the path to becoming a teacher selects for people who work for pats on the head.

This makes them perfect victims for lunatic dictators. When the National Socialists took over in Germany, all the teachers at my mother's school joined the Party (not to do so would screw your career) and obediently - for Germans are law-abiding to a fault, as Jerome K. Jerome noted in his pre-WWI book"Three Men on the Bummel" - they encouraged the children to do the same, and browbeat the reluctant. Grandfather, perhaps because he was a gentleman farmer, perhaps because he recognised the Nazis for the rabble they were - forbade Mother to join.

It only takes a small, active minority to promote each other into positions of authority, and they can make education the instrument of their revolution. It doesn't matter if it's book-burning Lefties (and we had some in the 70s), or business-serving privatisers, as now; the few will make their careers by change, and the many will sway in the breeze, first one way, then another.

For example, take something as simple (and, you would think, culturally unloaded) as learning your times tables.

When I was a child, we learned them by rote, chanting "four fours are six-teen, five fours are twen-ty" and so on. Silver star if you could recite your eleven times table, gold star for twelves.

Then, sometime later, rote learning was abolished. It was boring (I hadn't noticed). We should be learning by exploration. Anyhow, calculators could do all that stuff, couldn't they?

Turned out they couldn't. Because if you have no idea what the answer should look like even roughly, you don't notice when you've messed up on the calculator. And you're so easy to cheat in the shops when you buy three ice creams - I've seen that happen. And on a market stall. And in the duty-free shop of a cross-Channel ferry.

Well, they brought it back. But remember the Golden Rule of educational innovation: NEVER ADMIT YOU WERE WRONG. So when you restore something that should never have been thrown away, you have to do it differently - even if it's ten times worse.

So chanting has come back, with a difference. Ask a child what seven fours are and instead of zapping straight to the answer from memory, he'll begin to clamber up a long, wobbly ladder: "Four, eight, twelve, sixteen..." while you watch paint dry with more interest. And at some point, more often than not, you'll see he's switched to adding four to the previous number, because at age ten he still doesn't know this painfully slow sequence by heart. Which also means that if he gets one rung wrong ("twelve... fifteen... nineteen... twenty-two, no, twenty-three...") it all goes horribly skewiff.

If (sadist!) you ask him seven nines he'll fall silent, after a brief struggle.

Now I try to put this right, but when someone has laid down a foundation of horse manure it's hard to build a stable platform on top. At nine or ten, a youngster who is playing Grand Theft Auto 5 till two in the morning is just too cool to do sing-song chants. This should have been done when he was four or five, for rhythm and a singing tone is the natural language of infancy, and they thrive on repetition (God knows how many times I had to watch "Ewoks 4" with my niece). Now, too late.

Yes, good try, Kyle.

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Paddington said...

1. Small correction - not all of the teachers joined the Party. The history teacher vanished, to be replaced by the janitor.

2. Luckily, my kids go to a school where they still teach rote memorization of the tables (and we reinforce it), as well as actual handwriting (as horrible as my childrens' is), instead of just printing. What will they do to read old manuscripts? Will it be like me, trying to decipher the old German script of our grandmother?

A K Haart said...


There are similarities in the wider public sector.

As rules and procedures become hopelessly complex, people are forced to choose between getting the job done or following the rules because nobody ever admits the rules don't work.

Paddington said...

AK - that's because the middle-managers try to make rules which require no thinking at all, hence 'zero tolerance' policies.