A mountain to climb

30th May 2003 at 01:00
Teachers need to rise above an 'unthinking' system of subjects and trivial tests, say Robin and Jack Frame

BETWEEN us, we have practised in teacher education for most of the past half-century. When we meet, our conversations gravitate to the folly of exams and the tyranny of subjects. We have a theory about the persistence of these two undesirable facets of education.

One of us (Jack) recalls his physics class, in the early 1930s, scoring lower marks than the class taught by the teacher who set the test. Asked to give two reasons why a barometer would fall, the children in the other class had answered "because the air was moist and because the air was thin". That was what was "on the board and in their notebooks" was his colleague's explanation.

Seventy years on and children are still expected to respond "correctly", within the confines of their teacher's thoughts. Jack found one of his great grandchildren labelling the forms of energy on a drawing of a battery connected to a light bulb. Presumably the answer expected was that the light bulb emitted light energy. No feeling for the complexity of other possible emissions - nor of any wonder, much less bewilderment, at the phenomenon - seemed to penetrate the teaching. It was just science reduced to that lowly level of cognition: recall.

Teacher education institutions have failed to address this plunge into meaningless regurgitation and perhaps compound the effect by encouraging conformity. Assignments, ostensibly an opportunity to bring together experience, reading and thought, are enveloped in requirements and criteria for assessment. The student's thinking is inhibited by the fear of failing through not meeting the requirements.

One of us (Robin) marks such assignments, and finds that, like the students, he wastes time checking what the requirements are, how the outline links to the criteria and how these relate to the marking schedule.

He doubts he can have faith in his "marks", because each is an artificial category separated by less than a hairbreadth from the next, all on a continuum of performance. He knows that colleagues would probably score the same assignment differently.

But we all know about that. In 1936, Hartog and Rhodes's vast study, An Examination of Examinations (out of print but can be tracked through copac.ac.uk), looked at markers working on script samples from real examinations. These markers were the best, yet the study found that little reliance could be placed on their grades. Scripts that were a distinction in the eye of one marker could be failed by another. More alarmingly, the same scripts sneaked in front of the same markers the following year were failed where they had previously passed, or passed where they had failed.

Twenty-five years ago, one of us (Robin) had to fail an assignment on the teaching of colour to young children despite it being a wonderful collection of activities, full of imagination, full of fun. It had no "investigation". There was no "science". That brings us to our other fixation. The strange need to see education in terms of subjects.

We have heard 5-14's People in Place described as "being geography" and People in the Past as "history". The assumption that these words convey some meaning is a foible we associate with the subject-orientated teacher.

A subject (especially a secondary school subject) is only a collection of what is expected in these classes. There is no exclusive definition of content or process. Nor is there a link to reality. Life isn't defined or lived within subjects.

We hold that the child is the centre of what is called education. We have not, despite being science teachers, seen our role as delivering the content of science, but of broadly educating the whole child. The likes of Dewey and Neill influenced us. Jack put into practice a holistic introduction to education outdoors on the pioneering Glenmore trips in the early 1950s. Perched up a mountain, the new teacher would discover that drawing the shape of a glaciated valley, measuring the age of a tree stump by the rings, watching a sundew closing on an insect, being inspired to paint a sunset, or record feelings in poetic form, were all facets of one wonderful experience.

he 1965 Primary Memorandum granted recognition to this integrated approach, perhaps through a growing awareness of our environmental problems. Children would spend time at school learning about how the world works. Bit by bit, though, starting with the secession of the maths lobby, the new environmental studies was shredded into the "component subjects".

Those of us who are "good at our subject" realise we have been deemed "superior" by the system that educated and assessed us. So we are inclined to believe its precepts: that education can be divided up into subjects, and that the "clever" can be identified accurately. To do otherwise would threaten the basis of our status. Are we, the educationally successful, merely those who have unthinkingly remembered what we were made to learn and who regurgitated it in the acceptable manner? Is it possible that we may never have been challenged to show evidence of our "understanding"? This is a gloomy theory, but it does have the virtue of explaining and perhaps even predicting some of the, to us, undesirable aspects of the educational world.

We wouldn't like to conclude by suggesting that we should try to spot the narrow-minded and unthinking among our colleagues. Instead, we'll find a bit of narrow-mindedness and unthinkingness inside each and all of us. We need to accept this and counter it or we may be doomed to help perpetuate a subject-centred, trivially tested form of education for another half century.

Robin Frame enjoys his academic freedom at Strathclyde University's department of primary education. Jack Frame retired from Moray House College of Education in 1973.

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