Be wary of judgments

22nd August 2008 at 01:00
Labelling children in terms of perceived intelligence is akin to racism. Henry Hepburn reports

Conventional notions of intelligence are like racism and sexism many years ago - a damaging influence in schools that needs to be banished.

Strathclyde University professor of education Brian Boyd believes the idea that intelligence is fixed continues to hold sway in classrooms, with damaging effects.

Speaking at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, he likened it to the way casual racism and sexism used to be tolerated in schools before concerted campaigns made them unacceptable.

"The final frontier in education is the concept of intelligence and its impact on the way skills are seen," he said.

He criticised the use of measures of intelligence to sort children into groups: "Unfortunately, the label gets attached to the person."

Targets and labels were "the next big battle to be waged - we need to ask ourselves, `Why do we find it so comforting?'"

Terms such as "thick" do not have the taboo of racial or gender-related slurs, he argued, because the education system continues to rank children in terms of perceived intelligence.

"The system forces us, through testing, to make judgments about youngsters' ability which we know can be proven wrong."

He said there was no evidence to show that the sorting of children by intelligence had any benefit.

Professor Boyd's talk was laced with humour, but when he referred to several "dark forces" afflicting Scottish education, there was serious intent underneath the ironical surface.

These forces included school inspectors whose blueprint for excellent schools was too rigid, and those responsible for exams which were "not fit for purpose" in the 21st century since they did not assess a wide enough range of talents and attributes.

He criticised the mentality of business and industry, which on one hand demanded qualities such as creativity but on the other insisted that potential employees must have five Highers. "They speak with forked tongues," he said.

Universities were the "tail that wags the dog" by demanding higher and higher qualifications for every course. They could also make big improvements in how they communicated with schools and industry, he said.

New schools, meanwhile, were being built as "modern versions of 20th century schools" that did not take any account of A Curriculum for Excellence.

Professor Boyd also questioned the value of sitting exams earlier, after The TESS reported earlier this month on "stunning" results where pupils were allowed to take Standard grades in third year.

Schools should not be asking when was the best time to sit exams, he argued, but whether exams should be sat at all, since "teaching to the test" gave children a "very narrow range of skills". The focus should instead be on how to get children to do more thinking.

Professor Boyd, who sat on the review group that produced A Curriculum for Excellence, revealed that he was not happy with the name of the document.

He would have preferred to unveil A Curriculum for Learning or A Curriculum for Life, and said it was a "political decision" to use "excellence".

He advised being "very, very wary" of the word; the new curriculum should be "about empowering young people, about young people becoming much more engaged", not old-fashioned descriptions of achievement - "excellent" or otherwise.

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