Article: Basic ABCs remain best way forward

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Susan Godsland
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Article: Basic ABCs remain best way forward

Post by Susan Godsland » Wed Apr 20, 2005 12:47 pm

In The Scotsman:

Basic ABCs remain best way forward


SIT down. Take a deep breath and ponder this earth-shattering insight: "Most learning does not happen automatically or by accident. It requires conscious and sometimes considerable effort on behalf of the learner. It can sometimes be demanding and difficult and sometimes we resist or avoid doing it."

Indeed we do. It is because learning does not happen "automatically" that we invented institutions, you might think, known as schools, where people called teachers are employed to make sure that children who aren’t always keen to put the effort in buckle down and get on with it.

Here is another gem from the same booklet, Teaching for Effective Learning, published a few years ago by the great and the good of Scottish education: "If you think there is only one answer, then you’ll only find one. We need to help learners to tolerate and be comfortable with uncertainty. The teacher should be the most ‘it depends’ learner in the classroom."

Personally, I would rather like children to learn that 2 plus 2 equals 4 and not 5, and, naively, it seems, I had always rather hoped that teachers would have a clear grasp on the knowledge they are paid to teach.

"But", the pundits and the professors will reply to ecstatic applause from the Scottish Parliament, "education in the 21st century isn’t about the teaching of tedious old facts and figures. Who needs to know anything when you can look everything up on the net? Children must be encouraged ‘to make meanings for themselves’. What matters now is ‘learning how to learn’, not learning itself."

The problem with Scottish education is not feckless parents and their feral children. It isn’t that your schools don’t have the books and computers they need. It is that the supposed experts from the world of education and the gullible ministers who hang on their every word despise the traditional education most parents, in Scotland as in England, want for their children.

Parents, in my experience, want teachers who tend to spend a good part of the lesson at the front of the class teaching, who can keep order, who are passionate about their subjects, and who can explain things clearly and inspirationally so that children come to share their enthusiasm and understanding. The idea that in the new millennium the teacher should be a ‘mentor’ who ‘facilitates’ learning leaves them cold. They laugh at the argument that children should be left to discover things for themselves and, at the age of four or five, be encouraged to "take responsibility for their own learning", deciding what they want to do when.

They know that if we want children to learn to read we have to teach them the letters of the alphabet and the sounds these letters represent. They tend not to glory in the utopian idea that children are naturally creative and should be allowed therefore to express themselves freely. Grammar and spelling, for example, are judged to be rather important. Unlike most educationalists, they like the idea of competition, recognising that the desire to be the best is innate in us all and ought to be harnessed to raise educational standards. They do not recoil in horror from the idea that children should be grouped according to their ability and the possibility that a child might be criticised or punished for laziness or bad behaviour doesn’t trigger an anxiety attack because of the damage that might be inflicted on the miscreant’s fragile self-esteem.

Independent schools tend to give their parents what the parents want. If they don’t, like any other business that fails to satisfy its customers, they go out of business. Cognita, the company I chair which is building up a chain of private schools, is determined to offer children an education firmly based on the teaching of basic skills and traditional subject knowledge. Our teachers are working together to develop, subject by subject, a curriculum that maps out the progress we expect our pupils to make. There will be regular assessment of each child’s progress so that we know which children have failed to grasp which concepts, and children who are falling behind will be given extra support. Parents will receive regular and frequent feedback on their child’s progress.

It is more commonsense than rocket science. We do not need the rhetoric and the great theories. Here is another quote which exemplifies the world of progressive education: "The challenge for the 21st century is the development of a holistic problematised pedagogy." Do not worry. I have asked audiences across the country what on earth it means. Nobody has been able to tell me.

I suspect that if I asked the professor who coined the phrase what she had in mind, she wouldn’t be able to tell me either.

The tragedy is that nobody is prepared to point out that state education, north and south of the border, is built on ideas that are woolly and deeply damaging to the education of our children. Why should parents who cannot afford to pay the fees charged by private schools tolerate this stupidity? It is time to stand up for a few commonsense educational truths, to challenge the nonsense spouted by the experts, to ask the politicians how they can live with their own gullibility. It is time to stand up for traditional educational values.

• Chris Woodhead is chairman of Coginta schools and former HM Chief Inspector of Schools in England and Wales. ... =418352005

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