A vaccination for ignorance

Nicky Morgan, the Secretary of State for Education spoke about the future of technology in the classroom at the BETT show a few days ago. One particular comment stopped me short. It made me gasp.

“In future, we could try to link qualifications to tax data too in order to demonstrate the true worth of certain subjects.”

I don’t have a problem with the education secretary pointing out that we need more STEM graduates or even that students should be aware that they may make more money in the future if they study them. However, did the person in charge of the education of our country’s children really just say that the ‘true worth’ of an education could be measured by the income it might generate?

Education provides an essential function whether or not it leads to high incomes or rising national prosperity.

Education dispels ignorance.

Nicky Morgan’s comment makes me think of the sort of parents who refuse vaccinations for their children. Caught up in first world quandaries they can air brush out the stark and heart breaking reality of what would happen if all parents refused vaccines. They are perhaps ignorant of the suffering of past generations who had to accept the regular loss of their young children to the diseases of childhood.

Vaccines addressed the problem of disease and state education was the solution to the problem of ignorance. In 1942 William Beveridge labelled ignorance one of the five giant evils in society, along with squalor, want, idleness and disease and his report provided the foundation of the modern welfare state. Ignorance may seem such an old fashioned concern. However, that is because we can no longer picture just what it means to be ‘ignorant’ in the way people were before mass ‘innoculations’ of education nearly wiped ignorance out. True, some people know shockingly little today but acquiring some knowledge is fairly unavoidable in our educated society. We take the ‘true worth’ of that education for granted.

Below are three extracts chosen simply because they have stuck in my mind as they helped me picture what is really meant by ignorance and just WHY our children need an education, whether or not they earn much more at the end of it.

My first example is an extract from one of my favourite books, North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell written in 1855. Gaskell’s novels aimed to offer a detailed portrait of society, including the lives of the very poor. Here the middle class heroine, Margaret, is revisiting a poor family she knew when younger. She is with her godfather, Mr Bell.

  They reached the cottage where Susan’s widowed mother lived. Susan was not there. She was gone to the parochial school. Margaret was disappointed, and the poor woman saw it, and began to make a kind of apology.  

‘Oh! it is quite right,’ said Margaret. ‘I am very glad to hear it. I might have thought of it. Only she used to stop at home with you.’     

‘Yes, she did; and I miss her sadly. I used to teach her what little I knew at nights. It were not much to be sure. But she were getting such a handy girl, that I miss her sore. But she’s a deal above me in learning now.’ And the mother sighed.   

‘I’m all wrong,’ growled Mr. Bell. ‘Don’t mind what I say. I’m a hundred years behind the world. But I should say, that the child was getting a better and simpler, and more natural education stopping at home, and helping her mother, and learning to read a chapter in the New Testament every night by her side, than from all the schooling under the sun.’     

Margaret did not want to encourage him to go on by replying to him, and so prolonging the discussion before the mother. So she turned to her and asked,     ‘How is old Betty Barnes?’     

‘I don’t know,’ said the woman rather shortly. ‘We’se not friends.’    

 ‘Why not?’ asked Margaret, who had formerly been the peacemaker of the village.    

 ‘She stole my cat.’     

‘Did she know it was yours?’    

 ‘I don’t know. I reckon not.’  

 ‘Well! could not you get it back again when you told her it was yours?’     

‘No! for she’d burnt it.’   

 ‘Burnt it!’ exclaimed both Margaret and Mr. Bell.     

Roasted it!’ explained the woman.   

 It was no explanation. By dint of questioning, Margaret extracted from her the horrible fact that Betty Barnes, having been induced by a gypsy fortune-teller to lend the latter her husband’s Sunday clothes, on promise of having them faithfully returned on the Saturday night before Goodman Barnes should have missed them, became alarmed by their non-appearance, and her consequent dread of her husband’s anger, and as, according to one of the savage country superstitions, the cries of a cat, in the agonies of being boiled or roasted alive, compelled (as it were) the powers of darkness to fulfil the wishes of the executioner, resort had been had to the charm. The poor woman evidently believed in its efficacy; her only feeling was indignation that her cat had been chosen out from all others for a sacrifice. Margaret listened in horror; and endeavoured in vain to enlighten the woman’s mind; but she was obliged to give it up in despair. Step by step she got the woman to admit certain facts, of which the logical connexion and sequence was perfectly clear to Margaret; but at the end, the bewildered woman simply repeated her first assertion, namely, that ‘it were very cruel for sure, and she should not like to do it; but that there were nothing like it for giving a person what they wished for; she had heard it all her life; but it were very cruel for all that.’ Margaret gave it up in despair, and walked away sick at heart.     ‘You are a good girl not to triumph over me,’ said Mr. Bell.     

‘How? What do you mean?’     

‘I own, I am wrong about schooling. Anything rather than have that child brought up in such practical paganism.’

My Second example is a dramatisation of one of many interviews conducted by Henry Mayhew in the 1850s. He conducted the interviews as part of a large scale survey of the working poor in London.

My final example is from a film about China in the 1920’s that I show to my year 11s every year. It includes the reminiscences of an old man who was a soldier for the Guomindang when young. He chose to fight but my class always erupt into giggles as he explains how he was taught the reasons he was fighting. Watch from 9.30 for one minute.

If you can’t play that last link you can find it here: http://youtu.be/m7C40M9GM3k

How many making education policy would allow this sort of gross ignorance in their own children? When people question the value of learning history, geography, literature, RE, languages and creative arts I think they display an ignorance of what it would mean if knowledge of those subjects was NOT generally known in our society. It is easy to pick out any one area on a history curriculum and question the worth of knowing it but that misses the point. Any one child could avoid vaccination and she would be unlikely to die of disease. Any one child today is unlikely to be as sadly ignorant as Betty Barnes, whatever her education because she lives in an educated society where at least some knowledge of history etc is widely known. We want to equip our students with useful skills for their working lives and we hope an education will enrich adult lives but it would be stupidity to forget the ‘true worth’ of a broad education.

What is wrong with modern history textbooks?

Textbooks are indispensable in secondary history, try teaching A level without them. Students may have one issued to them but teachers tend to have a selection they use when creating their own resources. Learning history, inescapably, means covering lots of content and textbooks are used because they tend to present the content clearly and at the right level. Given how frequently teachers don’t know much about a new topic when they first teach it, textbooks are often used by teachers to find out what the key details are they need to stress when teaching.
There has been a lively debate recently about history textbooks provoked by Robert Peal’s article in the TES on the subject. He uses examples from this series for KS3 students to criticise modern history textbooks. For example This series has investigations such as:

‘Was Henry VII a Gangster’ and
Match of the Day: England versus Spain.

It is this series of textbooks that also repeatedly uses this graphic in its Nazi Germany textbook:

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I agree with Peal’s arguments about the weaknesses of many modern textbooks and this is why:

What is wrong with the exercise asking whether Henry VII was a gangster?

1. Relevance is meant to make a topic fun but often fails.

How many 12 year olds are engaged by the idea of gangster culture? For all the other children that question has no relevance and may actually make the kid feel more alienated as they can’t get excited by the question. Match of the Day might be relevant to many but since exactly when did all kids love football? I am not against using modern day analogies to help students understand a topic, far from it. However, it is best left to the teacher who knows the class and can judge which analogies will lead to deeper understanding and which will be a distraction.

2. We shouldn’t assume students will find the history itself boring.

Generally speaking the children I teach find history interesting – because it is. True, a dull teacher can desiccate the most fascinating detail but they could also drain the life out of a discussion of gangsterism or football . Once the teacher has done their job, whet the appetite of the kids, perhaps that may even have been by using a gangster or football analogy, kids will be thirsty to find out more. The Unstead books mentioned by Robert Peal were purposefully loaded with rich, fascinating detail and that was why they were so popular.

3. Relevance can be a distraction.

Of those 12 year olds that find the idea of gangsterism exciting how many really know anything about gangsterism? If you seriously hope to help students towards an answer to that question you will have to spend some time teaching them about gangsterism today so they have a properly understood checklist of features to judge Henry VII against. Not only is it not a great historical question anyway but students who have a very weak notion of what gangsterism REALLY is have to use this imperfect understanding to make judgements of their own on the thing they DO need to understand, Henry VII. There is a strong likelihood the question will be an impediment to understanding. It is also a distraction. It is possible that within a month or two all the students will remember is Miss playing a gangster rap because that was most memorable.

4. The apparent focus on developing analytical skills is fairly illusory.

There is a real tendency these days to think we are teaching children ‘to analyse’ when in fact we have simply taught them ‘some analysis’. A child that formerly used to regurgitate a series of events in answer to a question now simply lists a series of factors. These modern textbooks instead of telling the story ‘tell’ the debate. I agree with giving students inquiry questions to answer and will guide them towards a series of points they can use in their answer. However let us not kid ourselves that students that regurgitate lists of factors that modern textbooks tend to supply (in place of narrative) have created their own analysis.

5. The textbook misses out the content essential for analysis.

As an NQT I was on a mission. My training at the Institute of Education meant I pretty much thought I was going to save a generation of childrens’ souls (or educations anyway) by teaching them skills such as analysis. However, after using the SHP ‘Contrasts and Connections’ to teach the topic (maybe it was why William won at Hastings) a gut instinct made me issue the old, richly detailed textbooks sitting gathering cobwebs to give my students a better understanding of events and a good range of examples to use in their first essays.  I used part of an old series by Snellgrove for KS3 aged students. The value of it is best explained by Snellgrove himself. This is from the forward of a book in that series:

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I somehow realised, even if I didn’t articulate it in my mind, that what ACTUALLY allows students to analyse effectively is a detailed understanding of the events. Modern textbooks such as the one discussed often have pitifully little detail and then ask hugely complex questions. If students don’t get the necessary detail from somewhere else the answers that result are often not meaningful analysis but regurgitation or pretty meaningless judgements that just display the students’ (avoidable) ignorance.

6. Textbooks which focus on teaching the analysis make exciting history boring.

I am going to have to teach one theme of an A2 thematic course on Russia next term. I have never taught the period and so thought I’d start by looking at the student exam board textbook. It made me want to weep! The students complain they don’t understand Russian history by the end and I can now see why. The textbook is divided up thematically, not chronologically but then each theme is cut up into sub themes to the point where any possible sense of narrative, of interconnections and of period is totally lost. History has been reduced to capsules of ‘content’ compartmentalised to fit the board essay structure. You can get a good grade by learning to slot these fairly meaningless chunks of content into the right parts of the essay jigsaw. Not only is the interesting story lost in textbooks that focus on analysis but without that story you don’t really understand what you are talking about.

7. You have to start with SOMEONE’S story.

Nick Dennis has written a really interesting blog criticising Peal’s article. He explains that old fashioned narrative textbooks which give a story exclude other possible interpretations. I absolutely agree that it is important at secondary level to ensure students understand that our stories of the past are interpretations and that they are told about some of the areas of debate among historians. However, as any history teacher knows, we are all biased. Any textbook, in the selection of content it presents, tells certain stories to the exclusion of others. I have sometimes been made to realise how even our most basic explanations of events are loaded full of value judgements, for example when I had to teach Soviet history with a Russian student in the classroom. A modern textbook may try to tell more than one story but even the choice of enquiries featured is laden with value judgements.

Perhaps we don’t want Unstead’s stories anymore but we must start with someone’s stories and if we want our students to ever analyse effectively, make those stories rich, laden with fascinating details that draw attention to what is innately interesting, not extraneous distractions.

Just three special steps are all that you need!

What’s going to work? TEEEAMWORK!

Can we fix it? Yes we can!

Three special steps are all that you need!

What do you need when you don’t know where to go?

If your kids are similar age to mine and their favourite channel was also Nick Jr these exhortations will be so horribly familiar you may not be grateful for the reminder of exhaustion befuddled times when they became all too familiar. Heaven knows just how many times my kids, slouched, hypnotised and inactive on the sofa have been exhorted to ‘use their imagination.’ Much like adults who vacantly watch Saturday Kitchen, getting up only to make themselves some toast for lunch, our children are generally entertained but unmoved by the character/behavioural education so carefully packaged for them. How do I know it all hasn’t worked? Simply because, given the heavy indoctrination sessions the average three year old sits through everyday, if the lessons worked our reception classes would be full of cooperative, caring, team-working, problem solving giants of imagination. In actual fact, I’ve never heard a KS1 teacher recommend the route to attaining these attributes and dispositions is through more TV. Odd that.

It is odd how back to front it all is. The sort of teachers who believe hands on experience is essential to learning will only TELL young kids what is desirable behaviour. They do then, unlike with telly lessons, give possible opportunities for those behaviours to be practised and may try and prompt those behaviours but they then believe kids behaviour will alter if the child is ‘ready’ or able. These teachers tend to be less keen on REQUIRING that behaviour to ensure experience of it.

I agree that whatever of our general behaviour is mouldable, is shaped by experience. However, generally speaking, those experiences were NOT optional. We often learn from the ‘school of hard knocks’ but in our society we shirk from exposing our children to anything that could be considered distressing fearing it will damage the child or harm motivation. Engelmann sees things differently. He describes how when a child learns to walk, the ground is entirely unforgiving. Again and again the child falls but the undistorted feedback the ground provides means learning is fast. We shirk from allowing our children such experiences in their education. We seem to hope that we can cheat. If we just TELL our children the desirability of resilience, if we make it their decision, we don’t have to upset them. We fear that any non-voluntary behaviour demotivates.

For a long time (it feels like forever) my six year old has been learning number bonds. The odd time I have told him WHY he does long lists of calculations. I’ve even pointed out to him that his progress has been due to hard work. However, I have never focused on teaching him motivation and then allowed his progress to be dependent on his own motivation. Why not? Because he is only six and I don’t want my six year old to be hassled with the responsibility for or expect him to be reliably capable of, self motivated hard work. I certainly don’t want his progress to be dependent on this.

Recently my son has been doing the ‘Big Brainz’ games on the computer to build fluency in the four operations. He has got a bit distressed and very frustrated when he has failed a level because he does not remember the answer to questions such as 13-4 or 3×7. Contrary to the impression I must give, I can be a soft hearted soul. I’ve not liked to see his upset, felt that helping him with answers won’t hurt too much. Actually my kindness just means he struggles with the next level as the learning on the last was not secure. So recently I’ve been really strict with myself and not helped. I’ve even ignored his sobs that he doesn’t want to play the game anymore and required that he continue. Was he suffering significant distress? Well he had forgotten his concern within a minute and become re-immersed in the game. At six he sobs when he is told the television is being turned off or that I want him to eat some vegetables.

Has he been put off maths because of my callous, uncaring drive to hothouse him for 20 minutes a day? Of course he flippin hasn’t! If only I had had a camera to take the photo of his super cute (to his mother) victory wiggle dance when he finally conquered the third level of multiplication he had been repeatedly stuck on. I think he felt he now ruled the world! As adults our job is surely not to cocoon our children from distress or only allow struggle when it is self imposed. We must protect children from excessive distress but seem to have a very low threshold for judging that and thus we prevent our children experiencing the very lessons we value.

My son has also learnt more, faster by being required to struggle. My daughters’ KS2 teachers have found their capacity to work steadily through large amounts of maths work quite remarkable and they insist maths is their favourite subject because they enjoy being good at it. This illustrates to me that our reluctance to REQUIRE our children to struggle holds them back and lowers their own ‘pain thresholds’ when it comes to hard work (by which I mean spending a few minutes doing something they didn’t fancy doing). TBH I am just not sure how transferable my son’s newly learnt resilience will be to different contexts. However, I am convinced that while our attempts at character education are big on exhortation and decry non-negotiable experience, we’ll have little more success changing behaviour long term than Nick Jr or Saturday Kitchen.