In my efforts to understand and contribute in the rapidly changing world involving learning, my research is both wide ranging and eclectic. Which it needs to be, because none of us have any idea where the next good idea that takes hold is going to come from. Married to a Historian to her bone marrow, I am often humbled by my wife, Jenny’s grasp of the sweep of History. We spent half-term down near Dartmoor, and made our first foray into the rocks near Hound tor. It’s an extraordinary place, not least because of the impressive pile of rocks and boulders that give this pile its name, and as legend has it, Conon Doyle the inspiration for ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’. As we wandered around the surrounding moor, we came across the footings of a deserted village, Houndtor, well written up I discover on the internet (http://www.legendarydartmoor.co.uk/hound_sett.htm), and nearby across the way a much later granite quarry of the 1820s, well served at the time by a tramway, built of the same indestructible material (http://goo.gl/0DZLA ).
One place, 2 completely contrasting deserted centres of conurbation, one listed in the Domesday book, the other responsible for the stones that make up part of the British Museum amongst many fine buildings nearer to the quarry in Devon, both falling foul of changing times and technologies. The medieval village it is thought failed largely due to the rapidly worsening weather of the time, making grain harvest impossible, with perhaps a final sweep of the Black Death to depopulate it completely. Five hunder years later, however lovely Devon granite was in the 1850s, it came at a much higher price than that quarried further west in Cornwall, and the quarry and its workings were abandoned pretty much immediately. The granite rails that made the tramway were no longer as easy to manipulate and use as the new ‘Iron’ rails, and so were abandoned too.
Around the time of the closure of the Haytor granite quarry, across the pond in Washington, Abraham Lincoln was preparing his annual message to Congress for December 1, 1862. Whilst it turned out was a mainly routine report (if anything can be regarded as such during a period of extraordinary civil war), it was within this message that Lincoln gave first voice to his controversial measures such as voluntary colonization of slaves and compensated emancipation (in short, his proposal to pay the Slave plantations off). He chose to soften Congress to his plan through this great rhetoric: “We can succeed only by concert. It is not “can any of us imagine better?” but, “can we all do better?” The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country”
Moving on 150 years, and surveying the current educational landscape, I can’t help feel we could do with some one of Lincoln’s courage and stature to help bring some sense out of what seems little better than a scrap heap of granite chippings! It’s depressing to read that teenage literacy is plumbing new depths; we are making good progress apparently up to Year 5, but beyond then, the books of choice to read are those that are easy and short! Now my essay is not just about a lack of interest in books such as those written by Conon Doyle, but the formidable problem that has developed over the past twenty years as we have tried to open up higher tiers of study to our pupils. It seems contrary, but by making specifications so clear about what needs to be studied for Science or History or English, we have reduced the canon of work to be studied, such that reading in depth per se is no longer a requirement either for study at school, or dare I suggest at University too. And if the situation seems to be a concern at the top of the educational tree, it looks even more worrying for those in charge of schools at the start of the process.
“Thousands of children ‘not ready for school’ at five” is the headline from this weekend’s Daily Telegraph, going on to claim that Children are failing to develop vital physical and communication skills after being robbed of interaction with mothers and fathers during the early years. The paper reports that these are the findings of Sally Goddard Blythe, director of the Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology in Chester, said many early developmental problems could be overcome with old fashioned one-on-one interaction between parents and children. The worrying bit on this doom-mongering is that Ofsted’s research doesn’t actually back this up entirely; reported in the same article, Ofsted claimed earlier this year that growing numbers of schoolchildren were diagnosed as having special needs when they were actually “no different” to other pupils.
And here’s the rub; throughout our travels in the west country over half-term, I saw children and families at recreation together; some were tethered with ropes as they climbed the more serious granite Tors, other were just flying their kites, or crabbing on the jetties, all seriously engaged and enjoying the moment. It is the frequency of such interactions that learning happens, between peoples working together. As I sit and write, a solitary activity it must be said in the early hours of the morning, I do believe that Mrs Goddard Blythe has it right; it’s the interaction that is key, not the passive entertainment that is often easier to just receive. Reading takes effort, as does climbing or fishing; they are skills to be acquired, and for which no excuses must be made. There will be those for whom reasonable adjustment needs to be made, but a rock to be climbed won’t get easier by cladding it in scaffolding, or a Kite to be flown if its lead made shorter. Be sure in your parenting and you’ll be rewarded by your children’s achievements. As one Dad made clear to his small son who was rejoicing in his collection of estuary crabs, all scuttling in tangles in the bottom of the bucket. “Why must I put them back, Dad?” squealed the boy. “the crabs have their life to lead too” replied his father. And I thought “so that others can have the fun of catching them too”. And we were both right!