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John Simkin

A Decline in Academic Standards

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I still come back to the power of conformity.

The 'old ways' of teaching weren't necessarily very good. I remember studying French using grammar-translation with a very enthusiastic teacher - and I carried on right up to a good A level pass. However, a whole lot of my classmates didn't … and when I look at how much I actually learned, it doesn't match up to the number of hours I spent learning it, and my French was still much more deficient than it should have been, given the resources devoted to it.

My own explanation for the dumbing down Mike T describes is that old-style teachers, who were only partially successful even with highly-motivated, upper-middle class pupils, suddenly found themselves having to teach everyone, including the lower-end of the ability range. They kept on trying to do the same thing as they'd always done, but found that they didn't even have the threat associated with their old authority to keep the pupils in line … so they copped out.

The solution, for me, has to include one important element: teachers have to get better at what they do, and they have to take control of their professional lives back from their line managers. This might not be a sufficient condition for improvement, but it's certainly a necessary one.

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I take David Richardson's point - which is interesting in the light of the debate elsewhere regarding mixed ability teaching: e.g. clever middle-class kids often react positively to the teaching of grammar. I loved learning grammar and recall being more attracted to German than to French because the grammar of German was more of a challenge. I went on to study German at university level and subsequently teach the language. I was taught French by a very progressive (at that time, in the mid 1950s) teacher who spoke a lot of French in class and taught little grammar, and I was taught German by a very traditional teacher who believed only in grammar-translation. By the age of 18 my German was by far superior to my French - but mainly due to a three-week exchange visit to Germany when I was 16, and during which time I was able to bring my deficient listening and speaking skills up to scratch. My knowledge of German grammar was solid as a rock, and everything else just fell into place.

However, back to the point of falling standards:

Yes, it is our fault. Giving kids a broad education, regardless of their ability or background is essential. The "trad" subjects such as Art, History, Geography, English Literature, Maths, Religious Studies (i.e. comparative religious studies) Science and Modern Languages all have their place, and they can be made interesting to all children if presented in the right way. But these subjects are being forced out. Modern Languages in state schools in England are now studied by only 25% of our kids up to GCSE level. The DfES has consequently set schools a target of 50% uptake of Modern Languages after Key Stage 3 - i.e., having made Modern Languages an optional subject, they have thrown the ball back at the schools.

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If this kind of thinking is widespread in the educational community we are indeed doomed.

How anyone can say the the state of the modern education system is "our fault" when that implies any notion of blame to education professionals in schools or colleges or universities. In doing so they are repeating the mistakes of Blair, Kelly and a host of other Tories who have been meddling with something they had no experience of when younger.

Yes, teaching is tough, made a heck of a lot tougher by the diminishing resources social welfare of all kinds have been suffering for 30 years. Yes, students are less motivated/disciplined than in the 1970s, and this is not difficult to understand. What careers are there for young people (not saying that there were exactly tons in the 60s and 70s either): Forces (various), call centres, retail, sales....

For the record on languages... I loved grammar, in the same way I later loved logic. But when I had a German partner at uni I suddenly found all the motivation I needed to learn a language and speak it. Admittedly this is an extreme situation, and I was reasonable at A Level.

If you want to understand the 'it's got to appeal and be easy' approach to education (primary through tertiary), all you have to understand is the introduction of market forces to the process (Was that by teachers or other people?). Making the parent the consumer of education, however perverse that is, when the real consumer of the product in its present guise* is the eventual employer, has led to enormous change in how things are done, the de-professionalisation of teaching, endless nonsensical league tables, inspections and performance related pay. All of these have contributed to the growth of managerialism, and consequently the diversion of resources from the 'chalkface'.

* I know it shouldn't be like that, and it should be 'capital E education' not exam passes we're after....

Edited by Ed Waller

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How anyone can say the the state of the modern education system is "our fault" when that implies any notion of blame to education professionals in schools or colleges or universities. In doing so they are repeating the mistakes of Blair, Kelly and a host of other Tories who have been meddling with something they had no experience of when younger. l E education' not exam passes we're after....

No, I was trying to make a sllghtly different point: it's not 'our fault', but we're the only people who can actively do something about it, at least on the local level. I'm not saying it's going to be easy to buck the trend of de-professionalism, but it has to be done … and obviously the managers aren't going to do it, and neither are the politicians.

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Let me elaborate on my previous post a little.

Teachers can be instructors, we can be trainers and we can be educators.

I've come across a lot of instructors in my days working with the Swedish Army:

"Lieutenant: Step 4: Place road wheel support under half-axle of wheel to be removed like this. Has everyone understood Step 4?

Conscripts: Ja, lojtnant!"

It doesn't take much training to be an instructor - the conscripts were supposed to learn the steps and then come forward and reproduce the lieutenant's instructions almost straightaway.

We do a lot of training too ("This is how you get through the test …").

But it's our role as educators which is really subversive. I keep going back to the Latin roots of the word: to lead people out of or away from one state and into another (with the emphasis on 'lead', rather than 'do it for them'). Leadership, when it's done properly and isn't just instruction + bullying, is a very personal and individual affair, and it's extremely difficult to express in a 'leadership manual'. When it comes to the 'state' that the teacher is leading her pupils or students into, what that state is is a very personal choice on the part of the teacher … which is why teachers need high levels of intellectual honesty, if we're to avoid becoming brainwashers or propagandists.

My thesis in this discussion is that teachers all over the world have been intimidated away from the role of educator and forced into, at best, being coaches or trainers, and at worst instructors, following the manual the control freaks have written for us. For some of us, of course, no intimidation was necessary …

This doesn't mean that our pupils and students aren't being educated any more - it's just that they're being educated from other sources … such as computer games, Hollywood, TV, magazines, etc.

The intimidation has taken different forms in different countries … but unless teachers take back our role of educator, we can't really complain about the results of the education the pupils and students have received. I'm not claiming it's going to be easy to reclaim our role - it was intimidation which got us here in the first place, and it's never easy to fight against intimidation.

Perhaps it's time to start a new CAMRED: (that's a Campaign for Real Education, rather than Grimsby Town FC supporters' campaign for red stockings …)

Edited by David Richardson

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But isn't that, at least partly, our fault? In the rush to make subjects "relevant" to students, we seem to have thrown out any idea of teaching chronology in history. Teachers are, as far as I can see, free to pick and choose whatever topic they like to teach at GCSE and A Level, so kids may know a great deal about Jack the Ripper or the state of the drains in Salford in 1844, or the religious practices of the Plains Indians, but they know nothing at all about the French Revolution, or Bismarck, or Garibaldi...

I'm not saying that the new approaches to the teaching of history pioneered by people like John S and JDC haven't greatly enriched students' awareness of the past, but I do think some pretty important babies have been thrown out with the bathwater.

Sorry it has taken me so long to answer this point. It is true that in the late 1970s I did have some influence on the way that history was taught in schools. However, the only reason I was able to do this was because my views on history teaching was shared by so many other teachers. When we (Tressell) began publishing teaching materials using the “source” approach, we had no idea of the market. We just published materials that we had created for our own classrooms.

The source approach had been pioneered by the Schools Council a few years before we started publishing. However, young teachers like me were critical of these materials. (1) They avoided controversial issues (they had come under considerable pressure from right-wing politicians to do this). (2) Except for the “What is History” course, they were aimed at grammar school pupils and this was reflected in the content and design of the materials.

Although I produced two booklets (The Mysterious Case of the Mary Celeste and The Bermuda Triangle) for the “What is History” course, the rest of what we produced covered mainstream subjects like the First World War and the Industrial Revolution (we even published a book on the French Revolution). Nor did we produce books made up of very short extracts. This is something that emerged with the early GCSE history books. I have always been opposed to this approach. You will find that I have always used long extracts in my books. As a result I have been accused of only being interested in the academic student. This is untrue, however, I do believe, that to be a historian, you need to be able to read primary sources that last for more than two sentences.

A couple of years ago, Andy Walker and I had a very heated debate with the young members of the History Teachers’ Forum over the teaching of subjects like Jack the Ripper. We both rejected the idea that pupils should spend several weeks studying subjects just because they appealed to students. We also strongly objected to the idea that it did not matter what you taught as long as they acquired “history skills”.

As the names suggested (Tressell and Spartacus) we had a political agenda. We thought that certain subjects should be studied by all students. However, we also thought that the way you studied these subjects was also vitally important. Our books were an attempt to challenge the dominant ideology. The books published by the multinational corporations never had that intention. They of course were not interested in the “source” approach until the introduction of GCSE history. They then had no choice. However, what they have done, is to abandon the original idea of turning students into active historians (with all the consequences this would have for their political development). The movement towards the “short extract” is just part of this process.

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