Hard times for the non-robots

26th August 2005 at 01:00
Most people imagine that English-language teaching is well supported by a wealth of academic research. Of course there is research, but its findings are not used in the classroom now. They have been replaced by something alien and mechanical that makes teachers angry and desperate.

Teachers are being forced to do something they do not believe in. They go through the motions, submitting to today's requirements but having no say in the matter.

The Skills For Life construct is a rigid, inflexible machine - a kind of brainwashing. Perhaps this is why no one has spoken out until now.

The new system is an affront to intelligence and its imposition is a kind of Victorian nightmare. The Gradgrindian "facts" of Dickens's Hard Times are here again.

There are three main offending tasks a teacher must do - all of them linked, so that if one were missed out, the whole edifice might come crumbling to the ground. They are the DA (diagnostic assessment); the ILP (individual learning plan) and the English as a second language (ESOL) curriculum.

By the end of the year, around 100 pages of garbled nonsense for each student is produced, which is about as much use to the teacher or student as a page of Finnegan's Wake is to a poodle. And all this is "administered" by a sub-species of robot - the FE lecturer.

The dreaded DA, done by computer, sets a student's goals automatically, producing a set of generic goals for the class rather than anything remotely individualised. What is measured is not his or her English competence but their computer literacy... and it is ridiculous to assess anyone's language competence by computer anyway, when the most powerful computer only matches the intelligence level of a wasp.

Anything that can be measured about student needs and progression is always done by a caring professional teacher during the course of a year. It is what they do naturally without thinking, and a teacher will automatically choose lesson material on the basis of the class and student's needs and abilities. This makes DA irrelevant.

The idea of ILPs came from work with students with learning disabilities, whose basic needs are more identifiable. Transferring this idea into the academic field of language learning is untenable due to the complexity of the subject. In practice, students never look at their ILPs, and nor do teachers - unless they have an inspection looming. I have not met one teacher who fully agrees with them. They have become a compulsory part of a teacher's year, specified in their contracts - even when the theory behind them has never been revealed.

As students learn, their brains are processing a million different thoughts simultaneously, and measurable "smart" targets (an ironic term) are simply not registered. You cannot make a student learn. In fact, if you aim to achieve something specific, the result is usually that they learn something else.

Learning a language is vastly more complicated than the ILP suggests. It is something other than the accumulation of bits of a broken-down curriculum.

Following the curricular-speak in English for speakers of other languages, in the belief students will thereby acquire all the elements to learn a language, is sheer lunacy.

From every college and school, imaginative, well-loved and respected, intelligent and motivated teachers are taking early retirement because they are disillusioned and depressed. They are being ousted by others who have no choice but to perpetuate the dogmatism that has taken control of education. Teachers, by nature creative people, can no longer be creative.

This is where the Skills For Life construct has got it wrong. It does not stop with ESOL and basic skills, but is true for the whole of education now.

Despite the aversion most teachers have towards ILPs, the curriculum, DAs, and the whole caboodle, no one yet has been brave enough to stand up and say "rubbish!" This passivity can only be a fear of losing jobs.

Education is meant to be enlightening - for the student and the teacher.

That's why we became teachers. But we are enlightening no longer: we are just cogs in the great Skills For Life machine.

Robert Belcher is an ESOL lecturer at Southwark college

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