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John Simkin

Phil Beadle: Could Do Better

10 posts in this topic

Phil Beadle has agreed to answer questions on his book: Could Do Better. Apparently, it is the fastest selling educational advice book of all time.

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(Q1) The book appears to be aimed at parents. In an ideal world parents should play a large role in the educating of their children. However, in modern Britain, with people spending long hours at work, do parents have the time to spend educating their children? Sure, parents feel they should be doing this, but does this mean that the book will sell but spend most of the time on their coffee tables?

(Q2) You claim that schools tend to treat children as “battery hens” and this form of education is both “dehumanizing and destructive” (page 6). I agree and this is one of the main reasons I left teaching. To a certain extent, schools have always played this function. James Kay Suttleworth, one of the pioneers of state education argued that it would help to rear “the population in obedience to the laws, in submission to their superiors, and to fit them to strengthen the institutions of their country”. Or as R. H. Tawney put it: “a system devised by one class for the discipline of another.” It is the reason why Karl Marx was so much against the idea of state education.

Things actually improved in the 1960s and 1970s when teachers gained a lot of freedom in the way they taught. However, the reforms in the 1980s changed all that: the tyranny of SATs, Ofsted, government targets, league tables, etc.. I started my life working on the factory floor and by the 1990s I felt I had returned to the production line. One of the consequences of the educational reforms was that most creative teachers left the profession. That is why I predicted on the “Unteachables” thread that you would leave the classroom in a couple of years. I don’t think it is possible to work within a system that so harms the educational development of our young people. Do you think it is possible? Is this why you have left the classroom?

(Q3) On page 9 you write: “A good teacher will nurture a questioning spirit in a child, foster he doubt and give her the equipment she needs to challenge the certainties of previous generations… The process of learning should be exciting, enlivening and, more often than not, anarchic. It should ignite passions that will carry on into adult life.” I agree entirely with that. In the words of W. A. Ward: "The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires." Or as Ionesco put it: "It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question."

The problem is that the vast majority of teachers do not accept this philosophy. In fact, they are extremely hostile to the idea of students taking a questioning approach to their education. They see this as a threat to their authority. Douglas Barnes showed in his research (From Communication to Curriculum, 1972) that most teaching involves asking closed questions and that the role of the student is to “fill in the gaps” with knowledge that the teacher has already given them. Teachers will defend themselves by arguing that they know what the student has to learn. Giving the pressures of the national testing of students (and teachers) they have no option but to promote “rote” learning. How would you answer this viewpoint.

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(Q1) The book appears to be aimed at parents. In an ideal world parents should play a large role in the educating of their children. However, in modern Britain, with people spending long hours at work, do parents have the time to spend educating their children? Sure, parents feel they should be doing this, but does this mean that the book will sell but spend most of the time on their coffee tables?

I think it’s entirely possible that some parents might buy the book at the beginning of a new term in the spirit of really getting engaged in their child’s educational progress, only to find that they’re too knackered at the end of the day. (I’m not sure it’d make too much of a coffee table book though. Given the choice of Nigella Lawson or my gurning mug staring up at you from the sitting room table, I wouldn’t be plumping for the schoolteacher).

It’s not the kind of book though that you read cover to cover. It’s more for dipping into occasionally in order to pick up an interesting creative idea or perspective. I buy a lot of music, and I’d like it to work in the way that some music does. You buy it. Think little of it initially, but return to it a month, a year, two years later; so that it eventually inveigles its way into your consciousness.

The ideas in it can be applied with little effort on the part of parents. And that little effort, as I’ve found with my own kids, brings disproportionate reward. As an example, I’ve tried all the techniques in the book on my nine-year-old son. Last week he came up with ‘devalued’ on a triple word score in Scrabble; and, you know, successful in Scrabble – successful in life.

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(Q2) You claim that schools tend to treat children as “battery hens” and this form of education is both “dehumanizing and destructive” (page 6). I agree and this is one of the main reasons I left teaching. To a certain extent, schools have always played this function. James Kay Suttleworth, one of the pioneers of state education argued that it would help to rear “the population in obedience to the laws, in submission to their superiors, and to fit them to strengthen the institutions of their country”. Or as R. H. Tawney put it: “a system devised by one class for the discipline of another.” It is the reason why Karl Marx was so much against the idea of state education.

Things actually improved in the 1960s and 1970s when teachers gained a lot of freedom in the way they taught. However, the reforms in the 1980s changed all that: the tyranny of SATs, Ofsted, government targets, league tables, etc.. I started my life working on the factory floor and by the 1990s I felt I had returned to the production line. One of the consequences of the educational reforms was that most creative teachers left the profession. That is why I predicted on the “Unteachables” thread that you would leave the classroom in a couple of years. I don’t think it is possible to work within a system that so harms the educational development of our young people. Do you think it is possible? Is this why you have left the classroom?

Schools CAN treat children as battery hens (and by this I mean the institutions, not the teachers), but they don’t have to. For me, the advent of league tables has caused a narrowing of focus, which needs to be remedying. Good exam results give schools permission to ignore the creative needs of children, and as a result, the version of education churned out in the grammars, for instance; and particularly in the independents, is the spewing of facts into children that was regarded as outmoded in Dickens’ time.

I think we have a real problem in wrongly ascribed value here in Britain. The path to ‘success’ followed by the academies and the ‘livery’ company schools is a reversion to an idealised version of Britain that, thankfully, doesn’t exist anymore. Kids are forced to wear arcane uniforms, take part in near Masonic rituals, pay obedience without question; all in half arsed imitation of the class riddled environs of Oxbridge. Much of New Labour educational reform is all about reinstating deference and much of it sickens me.

Until such time as some government or other has the stomach to reverse the structural and institutionalized inequalities in our system, then any talented, creative teacher will be find themselves in an equation where the energy they expend is not equal to the learning they generate. The ‘choice’ agenda, for instance, is entirely wrong headed. Given the choice human beings will ghettoize themselves. This, combined, with allowing the church an ever increasing say in how children are indoctrinated means that, somewhat ironically, the government are fighting versions of religious fundamentalism on other shores, all the time using educational policy to ensure there will be an ever increasing amount of such fundamentalism for them to deal with on home territory in future generations.

I don’t want to come over all John Taylor Gatto though. This stuff has no bearing on why I am not teaching in schools this week. That decision was entirely fiscal and temporary. I’ll be back down the supply with my tail between my legs by late October.

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(Q3) On page 9 you write: “A good teacher will nurture a questioning spirit in a child, foster he doubt and give her the equipment she needs to challenge the certainties of previous generations… The process of learning should be exciting, enlivening and, more often than not, anarchic. It should ignite passions that will carry on into adult life.” I agree entirely with that. In the words of W. A. Ward: "The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires." Or as Ionesco put it: "It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question."

The problem is that the vast majority of teachers do not accept this philosophy. In fact, they are extremely hostile to the idea of students taking a questioning approach to their education. They see this as a threat to their authority. Douglas Barnes showed in his research (From Communication to Curriculum, 1972) that most teaching involves asking closed questions and that the role of the student is to “fill in the gaps” with knowledge that the teacher has already given them. Teachers will defend themselves by arguing that they know what the student has to learn. Giving the pressures of the national testing of students (and teachers) they have no option but to promote “rote” learning. How would you answer this viewpoint.

Ian Gilbert says something in ‘Essential Motivation in the Classroom’ along the lines of, “Bad news I’m afraid, the culmination of six million years of neurological evolution is not the GCSE.” He also refers to most teacher led discussions as being a game, the real name of which is, ‘guess what’s in the teacher’s head.’

Aside from what constitutes a decent jacket for a social occasion, I agree with Mr Gilbert on most things. However, in my experience British teachers – particularly in inner city comps, all want to be as good as they can be, and if you point out that ‘fill the gaps’ isn’t doing anything for them or their charges, they’ll quickly try out other suggestions.

I never actually found myself stymied or frustrated by the demands of exam boards. If you see teaching in the same way as perhaps a poet might see a poem, you work within constraints (rhyme scheme specific sub genre, etc.) and it is the discipline of working within those that helps you to create interesting, new work. But I can see that the pressure for teachers to ‘obey’ is pretty heavy at the moment, and it takes a bit of guts to see most of the mass produced dictates and curriculum materials for the crud they are, and go off and do your own thing. I was lucky, I came to the profession late, with plenty of chipped teeth. I think, without a decent mentor, it is probably quite difficult for younger teachers to retain the sense of excitement, anarchy and wonder that makes a great teacher without it being rushed within their first year by the myriad forces to conform.

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Interesting responses.

I trained as a teacher of English in the UK and worked doing that for three years between 1977 and 1980. In other words, my direct experience of the teacher side of the classroom was from the days teaching was seen as a vocation, and we worked per year, rather than per hour.

Since 1980, for nearly all of the time, I've been teaching English as a Foreign Language in various places and it saddens me a little to see the damage that's been done to 'my' subject by the demands of the national curriculum. Right now I'm teaching corpus-based (descriptive) grammar to foreigners, whilst UK pupils get prescriptive 'grammar-translation' type grammar thrust upon them. How you intellectually reconcile "underline the adjectives" with the fact that 'adjective' as a concept wasn't invented until long after Greek tutors were teaching Romans Greek is beyond me. It looks like the use of something we can call 'education' as a means of social control to me … My personal conviction is that I'd have been sacked in about 1985 for resisting the national curriculum, if I'd stayed in the UK.

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The ideas in it can be applied with little effort on the part of parents. And that little effort, as I’ve found with my own kids, brings disproportionate reward. As an example, I’ve tried all the techniques in the book on my nine-year-old son. Last week he came up with ‘devalued’ on a triple word score in Scrabble; and, you know, successful in Scrabble – successful in life.

I agree that parents should be involved in their children’s education. However, it is very difficult to find the time to do this successfully. When my daughter was young I was working as a teacher, writing books and helping to run an educational publishing cooperative with a group of fellow teachers and university lecturers. I am fully aware that I did not spend enough time helping my daughter with her education. However, I do now spend a fair amount of time educating my grandsons and I will be using some of your ideas with them. I believe that it is fairly common for grandparents to do this. Maybe you should write a book for grandparents.

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(Q4) On page 12 you state: “The vast majority of teachers are absolutely lovely; gentle, kind and intelligent human beings. They have entered the profession because they like children and will always attempt to do their best for them.”

I disagree with this view. A significant percentage of teachers do not want to be doing the job. When I did my PGCE at Sussex University the majority of those on the course were not committed to entering the profession. A substantial number had taken their first degree at Sussex and doing a PGCE was a good way of carrying on living in Brighton. It is true that many of these dropped out of the course but far too many students who should have been failed entered the profession. This was especially true of those teaching in shortage subjects where it seemed that breathing was the main criteria for passing the course.

Far too many teachers follow the path of school, sixth-form, university and PGCE. It was all too clear that after nearly twenty years of education they had become institutionalised. They were bored silly by education and had little desire to discuss the philosophy of education. (Unlike the tutors who knew how important it is to develop your own philosophy in order to protect you from the dominant ideology.)

The only enthusiastic students were those who had done other work since leaving university. In fact, I don’t think people should be allowed to join the profession straight from university.

Nor do I agree that the vast majority of teachers like children. Most start out that way but this often turns to hatred, especially for those with discipline problems. In fact, one of the things that surprised me is the number of senior staff who did not like children. After talking to one senior teacher I became convinced that he was bullied at school and was out for revenge.

Nor do I agree that the vast majority of teachers are intelligent. True, they are good at passing exams. However, that process usually develops a conservative and authoritarian personality. I have found the majority of teachers are reluctant to really think about their role in the classroom. In fact, they find the analytical process painful and are far happier doing as they are told. After all, it worked for them when they were students.

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Well that’s Brighton for you John! Some people are never able to give up.

I’m not sure, I think there are two sides to this one. I was never up for failing student teachers, or chucking them out of the profession before they’ve started. Whatever their motivations, they’ve turned up with a nice shirt on and, as an AST, that was pretty well good enough for me. I think there are too many experienced teachers who take a near sadistic joy out of failing student teachers. So, it’s a vice I never indulged in myself.

You’ve spent years developing a philosophy, and that’s to your credit, and will have informed your work. But there is another view; and that view is, “It’s only a bloody job.” I sympathise with both views, and don’t necessarily think that they are mutually exclusive.

As for senior management not liking children, it’s on the person specification I think. (That was a joke by the way).

My experience is in the inner cities, and I have never failed to be impressed by the human beings who work in such schools, take the abuse and grind out the possibility of different lives for working class kids. I think these teachers and managers are the best of us. And by that I don’t just mean the profession, I mean the species.

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I’m not sure, I think there are two sides to this one. I was never up for failing student teachers, or chucking them out of the profession before they’ve started. Whatever their motivations, they’ve turned up with a nice shirt on and, as an AST, that was pretty well good enough for me. I think there are too many experienced teachers who take a near sadistic joy out of failing student teachers. So, it’s a vice I never indulged in myself.

It is sometimes the kindest thing to fail them. Some people clearly do not have the personality or the right level of enthusiasm to be a teacher. To pass them is to condemn them to a lifetime of misery. Teaching is the most important job. We cannot afford to have people ruining the education of our children.

My experience is in the inner cities, and I have never failed to be impressed by the human beings who work in such schools, take the abuse and grind out the possibility of different lives for working class kids. I think these teachers and managers are the best of us. And by that I don’t just mean the profession, I mean the species.

I agree. The most important thing they do is to show that education is exciting and enjoyable. A bad teacher never does this. In fact, they reinforce the idea that education is boring and can destroy the desire to learn. That is why bad teachers are dangerous and need to be removed from the classroom. Even the old teachers who used to be enthusiastic have to be promoted to a position where they cannot do so much harm. As Henry David Thoreau once said: "None are so old as those who have outlived enthusiasm." Or in the words of Norman Cousins: "Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live."

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