Sunday, March 27, 2016

We must halt the relentless march of the Thought Police

I was recently interviewed for a Channel 4 documentary on the gradual erosion of freedom of speech in modern Britain – to be aired this summer. In a dank, dark hallway I sat, silhouetted in an effort to conceal my identity, rambling on like a badly-prepared job applicant desperately trying to fend off the ferocious attacks of a Paxman-like interrogator.
In truth, my ‘interrogator’ was a kindly young woman who went to great pains to make me feel comfortable – notwithstanding the cold, rusty old chair I was asked to sit on. This didn’t stop my interminable, incoherent rambling, though. It really was desperately painful.
All this said, my interlocutor’s probing, and my efforts to search the darkest recesses of my cerebral cortex for anything like an intelligent response, contrived to help me explore some important issues. And in amongst the verbiage was indeed the odd gem of insight.
For me, this highlighted the fundamental importance of free and frank discussion to the development of ideas, the exploration of the possible and the pursuit of truth. Never before had I consciously realised the essentiality of this Socratic approach to effective teaching and, of course, ultimately, human development – if, that is, we actually want our pupils to engage in critical thinking and problem solving.
Without frank discussion, ideas stubbornly refuse to surface. They lie undiscovered in the hidden, labyrinthine recesses of our sedentary minds. It is therefore incumbent upon us teachers to encourage our pupils to engage in such exploratory activities, surely.
Unfortunately, though, free and frank discussion is strictly forbidden in today’s censorious climate. Pupils and teachers face ridicule and ostracism for so much as uttering a single word of support for the Conservative Party. Margaret Thatcher’s name is particularly riven with toxicity. My niece, a sixth form economics student in a nominally excellent school, recently explained to me how her teacher and peers never miss an opportunity to decry and spit scorn at Thatcher’s ‘cruel’ reforms. Each lesson sounds like a competition in left-wing virtue-signalling – a veritable festival of Tory-baiting.  Just last week a colleague prefaced her support for one of Michael Gove’s education reforms with, ‘I don’t wish to sound like a Tory but…’
In such a censorious climate, children and teachers learn never to question the prevailing orthodoxies. Conservatuves are bad. Lefties are good, caring and, even if they occasionally cock up, generally do things with the best of intentions. Anthropogenic global warming is an indisputable fact. Mass immigration has been and will continue to be an unqualified success. The Government’s desire to stop the continued profiteering of people traffickers by refusing to welcome illegal immigrants and, among them, a smaller number of refugees is the very personification of evil. Nelson Mandela is the embodiment of virtue: so too is Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and anyone else who has challenged and thrown off the shackles of the white oppressor. These are just some of the ‘truths’ left unexplored and unquestioned in our schools.
In short, our children are being force fed a simplistic, dualistic, black and white view of a world neatly divided into good guys and bad guys. Such a one-sided take necessarily stifles the stimulation of each child’s critical faculties. In a place where they should be encouraged to challenge orthodoxy, they’re sadly being compelled passively to accept its veracity.
So all you progressives can forget this ‘child-centred approaches are necessary to develop critical thinkers’ guff. If our kids are being told what to think, and being actively prevented from questioning received wisdom, how can they possibly think critically and, more to the point, be creative? They can’t!
Another obstacle to free and frank discussion in an effort to stimulate critical thinking and creativity is the propensity of schools to conflate teacher-talk – or lecturing – with teacher-led discussion. Let’s not forget: teacher-talk is still strictly frowned upon, especially in the state sector. We are therefore discouraged from engaging our pupils in an invaluable exercise. If a discussion lasts more than five minutes, we begin to panic – paranoid that an overzealous senior leader could drop in at any moment and, horror of horrors, see us standing at the front of the class looking like a teacher rather than a benign facilitator – wrap it up quickly and initiate another, so-called child-centred task instead.
Meanwhile, our pupils are being deprived of taking part in an important, interesting and eminently enriching dialectic. Through these vacuous practices, moreover, society is also depriving its citizens of the intellectual wherewithal to spark creativity and ensure continued progress. Without wishing to sound too alarmist, we surely risk civilizational stagnation and eventual decline if we continue along this path.
Almost as damaging is our self-imposed reluctance to tell pupils the truth. God forbid we should ever shatter their fragile egos with unqualified criticism. Before berating a half-hearted, lazy, unsatisfactory non-attempt to complete a task, we must first tell them ‘what went well’ instead, even if the answer is sod all.
If a pupil is incessantly disruptive we dare not call him naughty – that would be far too honest. We must say that deep down he’s a nice lad but, at the moment, he’s making the wrong choices. So yet again the child is divested of responsibility as the teacher makes an erroneous distinction between him and his actions. He’s not naughty, his actions are. It’s as if his body’s been possessed by alien forces beyond his control. As a predictable consequence, and as kids are patronized and mollycoddled, bad behaviours continue unabated. It’s not their fault, after all.
During my confused responses under the mild scrutiny of my interviewer last week, some illuminating realisations struck me. Attacks on free speech, so prevalent in our schools, conspire to stifle the dialectic necessary for creativity and, no less alarming, encourage our children to indulge in fecklessness and wallow in their own self-pity as moral agency and free will are damagingly undermined. We must resist the relentless march of the thought police. The continued success of our civilization depends on it.
First published on ConservativeHome on 20th March 2016

Friday, March 25, 2016

'Independent learning' creates irresponsible excuse-makers entirely dependent on their teachers

It’s funny: the more independent we try to make our learners, the more dependent they seem to become.

After all, I suppose, at the heart of independent – or discovery – learning is the pupil’s right not to discover anything remotely valuable or, worse still, anything at all. They are masters of their own learning, encouraged to work at a pace that suits them and given the freedom to do as much or as little as they please. Unsurprisingly, given such options, many choose to do the bare minimum.

But instead of blaming the discredited teaching methods responsible, senior leaders stubbornly cling to the philosophy behind them and blame their staff for not satisfactorily engaging and motivating their charges.

So children are not only permitted to do nothing; they are also encouraged to blame their teachers for doing nothing – hardly conducive to the development of personal responsibility and independence.

Let’s take the profession’s longstanding obsession with group work, as an example. Apparently, group work cultivates ‘collaborative learning’ – another nauseating, meaningless term that sends the education establishment into paroxysms of joy every time it’s uttered by some self-satisfied university professor from the Institute of Education – and, by extension, and rather paradoxically, ‘independent learning’ through encouraging pupils to initiate their own investigations and work together on loosely defined projects. In short, group work is viewed as inherently beneficial to the development of pupils as independent, self-motivated learners.

In the real world though, and for the overwhelming majority of children, group work is absolutely useless as a method for encouraging independent learning. The most vocal kids invariably take control of the activity whilst the rest either demurely withdraw – too shy to take part – or take the opportunity to put their feet up and discuss the approaching weekend. It’s simply ludicrous to expect children to do anything else.

But in my experience and, I suspect, the experiences of many of my colleagues around the country, senior leaders stubbornly refuse to accept this reality – so wedded to progressivism they’ve become – and continue to insist upon a pedagogical approach that doesn’t work.

Frustrated at the dissonance between theory and practice, moreover, they lash out and blame us – the teachers at the chalk face. Apparently the frameworks we set aren’t fun, relevant and interesting enough. They therefore conclude that it’s nothing to do with the methods they themselves promote. The fault lies in their poor execution through badly designed, unimaginative lessons.

Yet when our pupils begin their GCSEs, if we don’t begin to actually teach them, make clear the need to work hard and keep pace with the content and timing stipulated in the course specification, they’ll fail their exams. We simply can’t afford to use the inefficient and unproductive methods central to discovery learning.

After ten years of progressive, so-called child-centred education though, and with senior leaders still insisting that pupils, even in Years 10 and 11, learn through discovery, they are completely unprepared for the demands of their courses and, as such, are destined to underperform. We are being forced to teach them using methods that don't work. It’s incredibly frustrating.

Incidentally, like consumers purchasing theatre tickets, pupils demand that their lessons are fun and amusing, as they’ve been led to expect throughout their school careers. And lest I forget: if these expectations aren’t met, many complain that their lessons are boring and bad behaviour ensues.

So there is a huge contradiction at the heart of independent – or discovery – learning. Children, largely left to their own devices, often choose not to learn and teachers invariably and often willingly take responsibility for such failures.

As the exam season approaches, we give up weekends, evenings and even holidays in an effort to make up for the inadequacy of our classroom provision. This evening I’ve spent over two hours organising intervention time for my underprepared Year 11 pupils. I’ve spent weeks chasing non-attenders, phoning homes and setting detentions. I’ve even drawn up spreadsheets to track the efficacy of this exhausting – eminently avoidable – strategy.

Now you tell me: how on earth does this encourage independent learning? Put simply, far from nurturing independence, progressive approaches cultivate passive, irresponsible excuse-makers entirely dependent on their teachers. It’s about time the powers-that-be woke up and accepted reality.