10 Year since “Man the lifeboats. The idiots are winning”; have we made progress?

Back in April 2018, Charlie Booker wrote this headline piece in The Guardian newspaper:

Charlie BrookerMan the lifeboats. The idiots are winning. Last week I watched, open-mouthed, a Newsnight piece on the spread of “Brain Gym” in British schools. I’d read about Brain Gym before – a few years back, in Ben Goldacre’s excellent Bad Science column for this newspaper – but seeing it in action really twisted my rage dial.

Brain Gym, y’see, is an “educational kinesiology” programme designed to improve kiddywink performance. It’s essentially a series of simple exercises lumbered with names that make you want to steer a barbed wire bus into its creator’s face. One manoeuvre, in which you massage the muscles round the jaw, is called the “energy yawn”. Another involves activating your “brain buttons” by forming a “C” shape with one hand and pressing it either side of the collarbone while simultaneously touching your stomach with the other hand.

Throughout the report I was grinding my teeth and shaking my head – a movement I call a “dismay churn”. Not because of the sickening cutesy-poo language, nor because I’m opposed to the nation’s kids being forced to exercise (make them box at gunpoint if you want) but because I care about the difference between fantasy and reality, both of which are great in isolation, but, like chalk and cheese or church and state, are best kept separate.
Honestly, the whole article is worth the read – https://goo.gl/EitPrw , and the comments that follow, though its audience is of the adult variety.

So what progress has been made over the last decade then? Firstly, Brain Gym, Learning styles, Multiple Intelligences, Left/right brain learners and other learning science neuro-myths have slowly and steadily been debunked, though probably not quickly enough to prevent too many schools wasting teachers and children’s time on them.  The basis of these neuromyths have been well intentioned; Howard Gardner in his work on multiple intelligences wasn’t trying to invent a new way of teaching, rather than debunk the post-war simplistic approach that advocated that brains could be trained to do anything.  Here’s Gardner writing back in 1993, 10 years after his seminal book Frames of mind. The theory of multiple intelligences was published: In the heyday of the psychometric and behaviorist eras, it was generally believed that intelligence was a single entity that was inherited; and that human beings – initially a blank slate – could be trained to learn anything, provided that it was presented in an appropriate way. Nowadays an increasing number of researchers believe precisely the opposite; that there exists a multitude of intelligences, quite independent of each other; that each intelligence has its own strengths and constraints; that the mind is far from unencumbered at birth; and that it is unexpectedly difficult to teach things that go against early ‘naive’ theories of that challenge the natural lines of force within an intelligence and its matching domains. (Gardner 1993: xxiii)

It’s easy with the wisdom of hindsight to work out how some in the ‘education gig economy’ thought you could just parcel up mini-packages of the above and peddle how a specific intelligence might be more rapidly developed.

Likewise, once those dramatic colour images of the human brain in action started Moral maze: advances in neurosurgery are often the result of risk-takingappearing alongside articles on cognitive science, it was amazing just how many myths re-emerged around whole brain/left brain/right brain learning.  That’s not to say that we don’t have different parts of our brain processing different things in different ways, but there are far too many interconnected neurons for us to imagine the bits don’t speak to each other at lightning speed. We’ve know from the very many head injuries endured by soldiers in wartime that damage in different areas causes irreversible damage to specific functions such as speech and sight, but we also know from the remarkable recoveries made by some that the very nature of the brain’s make up enables it to adjust and repair – this is called neuroplasticity, and actually we rely upon this in schools because the whole nature of a child’s growing development through education relies on the basis that neural connections can be made and remade. Here’s the dictionary definition of same:

  1. the ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning or experience or following injury.
    “neuroplasticity offers real hope to everyone from stroke victims to dyslexics”

It’s not just the neuromyths that have needed debunking.  Technology has once again been touted as our saviour, this time in order to equip ourselves for life in the “21st century”.  Here’s leading thinker on education matters and government behaviour czar, Tom Bennett on that “You hear people say that children must have iPads in order to be 21st century learners, but when you look at the research that tries to substantiate this claim, it’s normally written by iPad manufacturers and technology zealots, and that’s fine, but don’t pretend it’s research,” he says. “Children don’t have the time to waste on that rubbish, especially poor children.”

The profession has been led by people such as Bennett, and research organisations such as the Education Endowment Foundation, who have clamoured for government to ensure that educational change is led by well-rehearsed scientifically endorsed programmes of study. It’s not just Brain-gym adoption that has let this country, the States and many other parts of the west down; whole swathes of the world have been force-fed linear learning and achievement levels up through which children should be marched and by which schools’ efficacy can be judged by government inspectors. The entire English National curriculum has needed to be torn down since 2008, because it was built on such well-intentioned thinking, with no research basis to back it up.

Here in England, we’ve seen the wholesale scrapping of the assessment mechanism using coursework, ‘controlled’ assessments and modular examinations for both GCSE and A levels, again because of the well-intentioned approach that children should be validated by what they achieve along the way as well as by that which can be passed in a terminal examination at the end of a 2 year period.  The first major problem that the above brought was the inevitable grade inflation that came with this approach, that being, if the subjects and courses become more accessible to children by way of the validation systems of assessment, then more children will achieve and succeed at the highest level. The second major problem that arose was that ‘higher achievement’ did not mean successful ‘skill acquisition and embedding’, such that a C grade pass in English and Maths did not mean the successful graduates were literate or numerate.

We are now in the new, brave tomorrow where all skills needed to be kept practiced and alive over a 2 year period , so that on assessment day the successful student can demonstrate that they have all the skills and knowledge at their disposal, and to be honest, so long as the terminal question papers are appropriately tailored, it’s likely good schools will be able to enable and empower just as many of its learners as hitherto to success.  The courses are deeper, richer and encourage time for thinking and personal research, because they are not being constantly interrupted by their own or other subject’s assessments.

So now the old myths have gone, what are the new ones emerging?

Firstly the most obvious one is that the general requirement for schools to have a much more academic and rigorous approach (in order that England can rise up the PISA tables, provide better students for the economy, now and the future). This is being translated by proxy into a narrowing of subject disciplines from the age of 5, and with children being identified as falling behind from the very start.  The use of assessment to determine whether children are making progress assumes that education is the ‘filling of a pail’.  Now I get that, so that so long as I can measure the depth of water in the pail, and ensure that a child’s learning keeps up, then those ‘falling behind’ can be spotted and chivvied along. The trouble is, whilst we can measure the depth of water, that’s not a proxy for the ‘depth of learning’. WB Yates reminded of this with his illusion that ‘Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire’, and it is so much harder to measure the latter.

One new parent to our school with a 7 year old spoke to me on Wednesday afternoon about the difference her son’s experience of education was since changing schools. “In his last school, all he did all  day was write”, and when I picked him up each day, he seemed exhausted by the experience, the day dragging interminably from  one writing experience to the next.  Here, the school day is 2 hours longer, and it seems to whistle by, because he has so many different things to do, such a wide variety of learning experiences to enjoy. ” Now that’s one way to measure the lighting of a fire, anecdotal of course and not easily put into a league table.

As austerity bites, so many of the broader programmes of study are being replaced by narrow, writing-only based disciplines in state schools. Many headteachers and schools are shouting the odds about this, and making a serious fuss, but others are gently pressing forward and seeking to become ‘Ofsted – outstandin’, by focussing on the progress grades achieved by those children in a narrow range of subjects and gently ‘losing’ the children that are not sufficiently compliant to this narrowing of approach.

Schools minister Nick Gibb

Spot the narrowing visible in the now ‘required’ English Baccalaureate; English, English Literature, Maths, sciences (inc computer science), History/Geography, an MFL and one other. “A multimillion pound investment in music and arts education will help hundreds of thousands of young people from all backgrounds enjoy potentially life changing cultural activities, Schools Minister Nick Gibb announced today (18 November 2016).

Over the next 4 years the government will provide £300 million to a network of 121 music education hubs to work with schools, local authorities and community organisations to get more young people taking part in music and arts.  Music hubs help hundreds of thousands of 5- to 18-year-olds each year access activities like playing an instrument, singing in a choir or joining a band. Today’s announcement will allow them to reach even more pupils.”

Previously, this was funded in some 25,000 state schools, so you can see why the subject of Music is in such danger now, because schools can point to the new ‘hubs’ and suggest that this activity is no longer part of their core business.  Art, Drama, Design/Food Technology, Music and RS are now in danger of disappearing as school competitive sporting provision has done before, because the priority for an academic education sanctions their ‘departure’.

Secondly, there is a gentle permissioning of parents to give up on their children, because parenting has become ‘harder’. This needs both careful consideration and checking, because whilst for individual adults of any generation, parenting can be made harder because of partner separation, work challenges and the like, the data doesn’t actually show this over time. Simple measures such as infant mortality have crashed more then tenfold over the last 100 years. There are though many challenges now, cheap junk food, glamour accessories and easy access to technology contributing to an affordable adolescent lifestyle that’s difficult to combat when at the same time children are surrounded by advertisement that empowers them to expect freedom and access to the above.  School can be a very successful antidote to this.

What’s not a myth is that schools play a central part in a child’s life, and adults therein are likely to spend more time with the children than the parents are able to.  As other parts of our welfare state aae squeezed to look after the aging end of our society, so schools need to offer more opportunities not less for the child as they pass through education.  It’s easier for these centres of excellence in understanding and managing children to do so than suggest a wider society should try harder. In just the same way that more GPs in a community leads in the longer term for hospitals and care homes to become less busy, so research-led schools that cover more of the education space will led to a safer society and better educated community.

All we need now is for the numbers of uniformed police to be increased once more. Whilst I have to accept that there are many more crimes now to be committed on-line, so that space needs care, I also know just how important it is to have school liaison officers who work locally and get known in all the schools. As with school nurses,  it’s not good enough to spread them so thinly that they are invisible.  And that’s no myth here RBWM, where there are no longer any police officers assigned to the role. RIP

And in 2018, that’s idiotic, whatever the cause.




About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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