New radicals

4th February 2000 at 00:00
David Blunkett has, it seems, identified the transition to secondary school as a weak link in the education system. Gasp! Next he'll be telling us the world is round.

The Government believes the development of creativity, imagination and analytical skills will have beneficial effects at GCSE and beyond. Well, if ministers believe it, that's all that matters. I'm sorry, I'll read that again. Creativity? Imagination? These words and concepts sound discordant with what has gone before. Whatever happened to spelling, grammar, literacy and numeracy? Facts, Mr Blunkett, facts.

So what is the new panacea? The model for the new initiative is the cognitive acceleration programme, developed at King's College London by Dr Philip Adey and Professor Michael Shayer, which concentrates on the teaching of structured thinking skills. The programme of professional development for all secondary teachers will also include a guide on how to impart these skills and provide inspiration in the classroom. I can hardly wait.

But seriously, it does seem that policy-makers might finally have had a little cognitive acceleration themselves in their thinking about education, and are beginning to proselytise what has been good teaching practice for the past 20 years. The IT revolution has ensured that access to information is virtually unlimited. The task of the teacher is to help children develop skills which will enable them to find, organise, evaluate and use information - in layman's terms, think for themselves.

What irritates me is the implication that the approach is new. Let us at least acknowledge that some original and important work has been done in schools. If the examples have remained isolated, then the politicians need to ask themselves why good practice has not been identified and nurtured.

An example cited of this new approach is to encourage discussion of abstract moral issues as a way in to the study of Lord of the Flies More than 10 years ago I did some work with colleagues in Humberside on this kind of approach to Of Mice and Men. It involved discussion of what constitutes murder, self-defence and euthanasia as a way of establishing the reader's moral stance - that is, prejudice - that we all bring to our reading. Similar ideas and approaches have informed my teaching and the teaching of colleagues in my department for more than a decade.

And 20 years ago, as preparation for studying Lord of the Flies, I divided my class into groups and told them to draw up a list of rules for children marooned on a desert island. Because they constantly used me as a referee, I left the classroom. What ensued was a microcosm of what happened on the island: argument, dispute, laziness, recrimination. There was no dead Piggy when I returned, but they had learned enough to bring the book to life.

But I wonder how a lesson like that would be viewed by Ofsted. It was not planned, I had no real idea what the outcomes would be and I probably broke the law by leaving the classroom. We have performance indicators, objectives, structure and control, all of which stifle truly creative teaching and learning. For the control freaks, a "lesson" is wrapped in a neat parcel and then taught.

Good teaching is about learning. Good teachers push back the barriers for themselves and their pupils, and sometimes they knock the barriers down. In moments of true inspiration, the barriers cease to exist and anything becomes possible. The problem is that learning entails experimentation, and that demands risk. So beware of encouraging people to think for themselves, Mr Blunkett, lest they dig deep and yank out your philosophy by the roots. "Radical" is a word more used than understood. Remember what one of Willie Rushton's teachers wrote on his school report: "Shows dangerous signs of originality."

Kevin Fitzsimons is head of English at a Hull comprehensive.


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