The lights are on but no one's learning

3rd January 1997 at 00:00
Style or substance? The two ought to go together in any educational enterprise, yet increasingly they seem to exist separately. A suitable metaphor might be those Western film sets where the saloon and the bank and the jail look substantial from the street - but there is nothing round the back.

English teachers have always had to balance the twins of form and content, encouraging the correctness of a child's writing technique while retaining interest in the meaning of what is being said. It is a difficult balance to maintain - yet, despite the trendy educational critics, I know of no teacher who is only interested in the punctuation of the semi-colon; nor of any who says, "Write what you want irrespective of form and layout".

Technological advances threaten to widen the style-substance split. If the ability to access the Internet allows pupils to acquire copies of current research information from far-flung university departments then it proves nothing about their intellect, only about their parents' financial status. Amassing other people's data and research is technological plagiarism, deserving no reward in certificate exams when presented undigested as evidence of pupil activity.

It is as vacuous as copying mindless pages from books in the guise of project work, or as pointless as those mobile phone users who fry their brains daily in an attempt to impress - the medium rather than the message being all important. (A friend, travelling by train to France, was embarrassed by his alarm clock going off in his luggage on the overhead rack; he was greatly cheered by the simultaneous rush of several young businessmen as they groped in their inside pockets for their mobiles.) Light years of teacher time are wasted polishing up Apple Mac abilities where other methods would furnish perfectly acceptable alternatives. I know of a teacher who has spent hours producing a magnificently tabulated rota on his Apple for staff duties for the second-year disco. Black pen and photocopier would have taken minutes.

The medium is all: increasingly no one bothers with the message. The jargon of module descriptors seems directly proportionate to the triviality of what they are assessing. Recent complaints that generations of scruffy teachers have caused Britain to plummet down the educational league tables made teachers wonder what sartorial elegance might redress the balance. They did not have long to wait before a Bradford art teacher touted himself in the newspapers, bedecked in frock coat and watch chain, extolling the virtues of keeping the Armani label on his spectacles ("Children notice these details," he said).

One eccentric might seem harmless, but in an attempt to recover the gender balance a Woman in Education Network has organised a series of meetings in the west of Scotland. Their most recent newsletter outlines the way ahead for 1997, with meetings on the "glass ceiling" and stress management, before addressing the final educational challenge, "Power Dressing on a Budget". Potential women managers, no doubt shoulder-padded like American linebackers all, will receive tips on "professional wardrobe counselling". I've never been asked to counsel a professional wardrobe, but it may come in handy some day.

At the start of a year without those two sadly missed Big Macs of the Scottish educational and cultural world - Maclean and MacCaig - it is an illuminating thought to ponder whether they would have been rushing to attend power dressing sessions in Edinburgh or Plockton!

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