Swing? It don't mean a thing

24th February 2006 at 00:00
Did Socrates use individual learning plans? Was Mathew Arnold prepared to put his head on the block for student centred learning?

Or, to put it another way, how did I manage to get educated? As I left school in 1967 - before most of what is now fashionable in educational practice was thought of - how is it possible that I ever learnt anything?

Before you dismiss this as the dyspeptic ramblings of an old educational soldier rapidly approaching dribble-time, let me say straight away that I have nothing against any current idea per se. Rather it is the unthinking acceptance of the latest orthodoxy that is prevalent right across education that so gets my goat.

George Orwell may have got part of it wrong in 1984 where he suggested that totalitarianism in our world was in danger of becoming the norm. But the way in which a gullible populace so enthusiastically signed-up for Big Brother's every u-turn of policy, fits what is happening now in the educational world to a tee.

Today, the only politics allowed in education are the politics of the bandwagon. And while the ideas generally emanate from on high, it's poor saps like us in the front line who find ourselves having to implement them with such credulous vigour.

Let's start in the classroom. At the moment the big things in FE are differentiation and integration of ICT into teaching and learning.

(Possibly by now they are actually the big things of yesterday, because what with all the marking I don't get out as much as I should.) Never mind, the point is that these are not just seen as useful tools in the teacher's armoury. Rather, they are essential ingredients, without which no lesson can possibly be considered complete. If an inspector calls and they are absent from the lesson plan, then prepare yourself for failure. Don't you know that no student ever learnt a thing before computers were in the world?

The real essence of the educational bandwagon though is the swing - does that make it a swing band? - from one thing to another. What was once the holy of holies is now finished, washed-up, beyond the pale. How could we have been so stupid, we ask ourselves, to have taken it on board in the first place?

Student assessment provides a good example of the swing in practice. Not so many years back, all learning was assessed by exams. Then people began to ask if it really was such a good idea to test a year's worth of knowledge in a couple of three-hour sessions. Some students, however able, simply weren't any good at exams. And surely anyone can have the odd bad day?

The answer? Coursework. First it was 20 per cent. Then 50. But if coursework really was the answer, why not assess the whole course that way and be done with it?

Then the doubts began. How did we know it was the student doing the work and not his clever big sister? And then along comes the internet with all its perfidious plagiaristic possibilities. So now it's goodbye coursework, and in its place, exams of course, stupid. They're fair. They're quick.

And, provided they are properly policed, no cheating can take place.

Coursework's had it. No one can surely believe in that old hat any more can they?

As a teacher of literature - sadly that must now read "as a former teacher of literature" - I have seen the same thing happen to the books that are deemed fit for study. Back in the 80s there was a decided swing away from the dead white males who had dominated the syllabus for so long. Relevance was suddenly the big thing. So much so that, for a while, it was almost the only thing. White working-class kids got A Kestrel for a Knave; black ones Maya Angelou. Presumably those at Eton were just allowed to carry on reading Brideshead as before! Then someone noticed that the classics weren't being taught any more, and it was bye bye to Barry Hines's big royalty cheques and hello again to Dickens, Keats and Eliot.

Outside of the classroom, if anything, it's worse. Much has been written on the inanities of the targets regime, but still, for the moment at least, they are with us. While targets might be useful in some circumstances, everyone concerned with them knows, if they think about it at all, that in most cases they are pointless and stupid - not only useless but counter productive given that they take time and divert attention away from real problems.

The key words here though are "if they think about it" - because thinking is the last thing you're supposed to do. Targets are there because targets are there. Institutionalised. Part of the furniture. Built into the yearly cycle along with holidays and over-inflation pay rises for CEOs. The only certainty is that if they go - when they go - the useful 10 per cent of targets will be thrown out with the 90 per cent that aren't.

It only took one little boy to point out that the King was in the altogether; but you can't help thinking that it will take an awful lot more before the wheels come off the swing band's educational bandwagon!

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