Sunday, March 04, 2012

Education's secret revolution

Peter Hitchens' column today includes, as side issue, the following:

"So millions of people can’t do simple sums? Of course they can’t. This is because so many snotty teachers, who think proper education is ‘authoritarian’ and ‘learning by rote’, refuse to make children chant their times tables.

I am no mathematician, but got every single one of the test questions right with ease, simply by using my tables."

I have submitted this comment for approval:

Re times tables: children ARE now taught to recite times tables - but in a different, and much less useful way. What follows may seem a little petty but there are, I think, wider implications.

In the bad old days, if asked "six sevens?" you'd reply "forty-two" straightaway, because the times table chant included the line "six sevens are forty-two". Simple association: say "Ant and..." and you get "Dec".

Now, the children I see have been trained in a sort of stepladder routine, climbing laboriously up all the rungs: "7, 14, 21, 28, 35, 42". Not only does this take longer, but they only have to misremember one of the rungs and it'll become "... 29, er, 36, er, 43". Or not infrequently, a petering out into a defeated silence.

This is partly to do with not enough practice: the item will have been ticked off the teacher's planning (as in  "we cover the apostrophe in Y4 Spring Term Week 5 Day Three"). God forbid you should bore children with dull, repetitive learning. But without anything else to link to, it's just a list of numbers with no obvious connexion - it may as well be the combination to a safe.

The child may also sometimes climb correctly but go past the required answer because in this painfully slow recital he's lost count of how many rungs you've asked him to climb.

I'm not certain why we didn't simply reinstate the ancient method, but I have a suspicion that it might be something to do with not admitting that we've been wrong about this since somewhere in the 1970s; like phonics, grammar exercises, precis, comprehension and so on. Whatever is brought back is reinstated not only late, slowly and grudgingly, but in some revised form so that crusty teachers and grandparents can't say "I told you so."

I know of one case in the 70s where a departing secondary Head of English burned the department's coursebooks in a skip in the playground, to ensure that the bad old ways could never return; and I've heard of two others who did the same. We have had a revolution; and the revolutionaries (many now leading lights or self-employed consultants) are just now beginning to fade from the scene.


Tedious tantrums said...

The examples that I saw were arithmetic not maths. I was and still am useless at maths but I'm pretty much okay with arithmetic.

I also have a calculator on my phone should I need it, a spell and grammar checker on my PC and I no longer jave to take the rugs out, hang them up and beat them to get the dust out as I was required to do for my Grandmother in the 60's.

There was nothing wrong with the old system of rods (those sort of wooden bicks of varying sizes and colours) or learning your tables by rote or weekly spelling test.

The world has moved on but change for change sake only, isn't a good enough reason to change.

Sackerson said...

The machines won't do everything, as you know. Those who have no knowledge of mental arithmetic won't spot a daft answer on their calculator. Times tables are simply essential.

But precis and comprehension also sharpened the mind. Teaching phonics is no longer the career suicide it was, I'm glad to say; the odd grammar exercise appears to be allowable, under caution.

It's not that the old ways didn't work - though for some, nothing much works - it's that they were swept away by the young Turks. There was creative teaching before them. Like sex, they think they invented it.

dearieme said...

The destruction of education was the greatest act of philistinism in British history since the German and Irish invasions in the Dark Ages. The vikings were small beer by comparison.

ancient mariner said...

In the 1970s I met a graduate so-called "English" teacher working in a secondary school who had never heard the word 'parsing' or 'adjectival clause' - and had no idea what I was taking about.

I was also brusquely informed that '"grammar is no longer important, it's 'communication' that matters". I don't see that much has changed after all these years.