Old values for the new age

7th January 2000 at 00:00
What teachers will most need in the new millennium is a time to consolidate classroom reforms without the distractions of "pseudo-academic obfuscation", says Chris Woodhead

WHAT DO you think as you contemplate this new millennial dawn? Should we be transforming our schools into "cyber-learning organisations for the techno-generation"? Which should we dump first? Our anachronistic belief in a national curriculum which is no more than "an arbitrary collection of predominantly academic subjects" or our ridiculous commitment to "the formal classroom with its inevitable emphasis on abstract tasks and predictable results"? Is it not time that we changed our definition of intelligence? Forget the "ability to memorise, to think sequentially, and to write good prose". These traditional virtues are now irrelevant. They, too, must be consigned as quickly as possible to the dustbin of the last century.

What matters now, as I am sure you will all agree, is our "ability to pinball around through knowledge and make imaginative patterns on the web".

Does it? Are you persuaded? Have you succumbed to futurist rhetoric of this fatuous kind? Many, it seems, have. Professor Kerry J Kennedy of Canberra University, Valerie Bayliss, director of the Royal Society for the Arts' Opening Minds project, John Abbott, trust director of the 21st Century Learning Initiative, and broadcaster James Burke, whose views I have quoted above, typify the spirit of the new educational age. We have taken the world of high technology as our model. We have convinced ourselves that we need year in, year out to rethink the nature of the educational enterprise, to reconceptualise the curriculum, to research new approaches to teaching and learning.

It is, I am afraid, time someone remarked on the emperor's lack of clothes. Schools are not hi-tech electronics firms. The purpose of education in the 21st century is exactly what it was in the 19th and 20th: to initiate the young into those aspects of our culture upon which their (and our) humanity depends. The national curriculum is a collection of academic subjects. But this collection is not arbitrary. It is an entitlement which we must defend against the philistine enthusiasms of those who cannot distinguish between "knowledge" and "information" and who believe, in their utilitarian zeal, that the challenge is simply to define the competencies needed to manage our lives and work.

Is it surprising, given these new orthodoxies, that good graduates, who care about the subjects they have studied, choose not to enter the teaching profession? No, it is not. They see through the rhetoric, and too many of those who really do want to teach come to th conclusion that it has to be in the relatively gobbledegook-free zone of independent education.

What, moreover, is wrong with the formality of the traditional classroom? If "formality" means structure and purpose, then formality is to be applauded.

Good teachers, of course, know this. They know that it is their enthusiasm for and understanding of their subject that will capture the imagination of their pupils. They know that the more they expect the more their pupils will achieve.

They know that their effectiveness as teachers depends upon their ability to secure order, explain things clearly, ask the right question of the right pupil, joke, urge, coax, encourage, and so on. There is nothing intellectually mysterious about these essential teaching skills. The new millennium does not mean that we must now jettison the traditional craft of the classroom in favour of what Professor Di Bentley once so memorably described in these pages as the pursuit of "a holistic problematised pedagogy".

The teachers I know and admire simply laugh at self-indulgent nonsense of this kind! The challenge, as they see it, is to become better at the traditional craft of the classroom: better at explaining new ideas, better at asking questions and responding to their pupils' answers, better at dealing with the hundred and one unexpected possibilities that arise in every lesson they teach. We need less windy rhetoric about the nature of teaching and learning and more opportunities for teachers to work and talk together, to reflect on their successes and failures, to "tinker" in David Hargreaves' phrase, "with an idea to see how well it fits their personal style and the conditions of their particular classroom".

We need, above all, a period of consolidation in which we ensure that the additional pound;19 billion the Government has found for education reaches real teachers. The risk is that it will be frittered away in initiatives, bureaucracies and research which will not make a jot of difference in the real world.

Common sense, I have been told by more than one academic, is an ideological construct. I can only say that the longer I am chief inspector the more sceptical I become of wacky theorising, the more convinced I am that we must hold fast to common-sense truths about the nature of the educational enterprise and the craft of the classroom.

Standards will rise as and when we target resources more intelligently, manage the service (at all levels) better, and, above all, perhaps, when we cut through the pseudo-academic obfuscation that depresses and distracts those who actually have to do the job.

Chris Woodhead is HM chief inspector of schools

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