We must nurture to change our nature

15th July 2005 at 01:00
The wheel of educational innovation needs to roll round towards cherishing children, says Robin Frame

I had imagined retirement, even when only partial, might be a time of endless days with little to do. How wrong. I'm dragged from that growing list of chores - fixing the fence to keep out my neighbour's cattle, tying up the beans, weeding, stripping the boiler, more weeding - to wondering about education. I blame Radio 4.

There is more evidence of disruption in schools, with the teaching unions gathering sombre data. This is backed by anecdotes from friends and former colleagues, and is made real through my sporadic ventures into schools on supply. I think I should be appalled by what seems to be accepted as the teacher's lot - to be forever expecting a wholly unwarranted verbal assault from frustrated pupils.

Releasing them into the community (exclusion) is hardly a cure. Our children show all the symptoms of institutionalisation, the helplessness of old lags, the dependency of care-home dwellers. I don't think we (teachers? society?) are recognising our responsibility for this.

I was lucky enough to witness the 1970s (yawn!), when disruption was dominant but when innovation to tackle it was allowed free rein, if only for a while. At the heart of a successful response was a desperate desire to provide things to do, or go to see, that might lead to the awakening of "interest". Hugh Mackenzie, that devotee of A S Neill, made it happen at his school, Craigroyston in Edinburgh.

Then, as now, children felt disengaged and, despite the official emphasis on "process" not "product", still felt they were just seen as peas in a pod ready for processing. To push the metaphor, what was needed was a good old garden variety of education, one that assumed that children had evolved to learn and "develop" into the adults they could be, rather than the ones we dictated.

Years later, John Aitkenhead, of Kilquhannity school, expounded upon free schooling. "What is the root of the word education?" he asked his visitors.

"Educo, educere, to lead out," they dutifully responded. "No. You are all very bad Latin scholars", he cried, before gently explaining how educere through eductum gives us eduction. And what then could give rise to education? Why, only educo, educare, educatum, which, he declared with more than a flourish, meant to nurture or cherish - as of a plant. Ah weel.

Meanwhile, back at Radio 4, two stories were juxtaposed. One concerned power lines, the other exciting breakthroughs in teaching reading. A comprehensive study showed clusters of childhood leukaemia where power lines created electromagnetic radiation. No other factors could be found that correlated, and no spurious effects of data collection could be suggested. In short, the link seemed solid. The political choice, however, was to discard the findings as inconvenient and to take no action.

Contrast this with the reading innovation. Here a study in one local education authority showed a "before and after" improvement of headline-grabbing magnitude. Little was made of the fact that every innovation of practice or materials seems to produce improvement.

No reference was made to the positive effect of intervention itself, so thoroughly recorded in the Harvard study of the Hawthorne works in Chicago in the 1920s. No thought of the parallel with medicine, where one is forced to do better with a new medicine than with a placebo.

And no respectable research could be so cavalier about participant bias. I recall a researcher studying auto-immune disease, from which she suffered, whereby the body attacks its own tissues.

Samples for analysis were collected and assorted in a most complex double- blind procedure. Yet the researcher found herself guessing and trying to identify the samples. She reported that she felt this might invalidate the results. But in the schools everyone (management, teachers, children and parents) knew they were trying something new because it seemed a good idea.

Of course the trial was a success. The political reaction was to announce that new guidelines would be sent to schools so that they will all do it.

Oh save me, someone.

Where might we find anything to do with nurturing or cherishing our developing children? Is there no evidence of exciting curriculum innovation? We seem even to have lost the concept of curriculum development. There seems to be no underlying philosophy, no belief system and, worse, no passion. But, all is not lost. Notification arrives of the International Storyline Conference. The blurb tells me the Storyline approach is coming home to where it began 40 years ago in Scotland. It "encourages flexible and imaginative thinking in teachers and learners".

The idea will be well-known to those with 10 years or more of service.

Storyline is that much-loved "topic study" approach, promoted by the Jordanhill staff tutor team, inspired and led by Fred Rendell. Could this be the first real sign of the wheel completing its turn, returning to a form of education that put the child and his or her imagination at the centre?

The days of doing the next page in the workbook, of following the prescribed sequence of lessons, might be numbered. The last student-teacher cohort to be exposed to a topic study produced several variations of the following comment: "It is the first time I can remember being asked to use my imagination in class."

Disaffection, disgruntlement, these may be but symptoms of boredom - boredom being that state of discontent when the imagination is switched to off, and the key to restart it has been taken away.

So what am I to do with my summer break? I could ignore all of this. Or I could beg local authorities to let me air some of the topics littering my attic floor. Or I could offer courses, go private, become a "consultant".

Or I could wait politely to be asked. What is at stake is important, more important even than my gardening.

Robin Frame advocates topic study when he is not learning how to educate plants.

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