Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Teachers have lost their mojo

The motivation to learn comes from knowledge, not teaching methods.

It used to be accepted that learning academic subjects was hard work, but there were rich rewards for those prepared to put in the effort. Teachers were proud to make this case and thunder at those who weighed it differently – that was their role as advocates. If a child succeeded, it was a demonstration of hard work and talent. If a child failed, at least some of the blame lay with that child’s lack of application.

Education has moved away from such ideas. The pendulum has swung from the cruel and violent coercion of the past to delegitimising any kind of adult-imposed authority. Schools promote the idea of managing behaviour restoratively rather than punitively; the idea of punishment for a moral failing is anathema. Educationalists argue that coercion does not lead to intrinsic motivation, only compliance for as long as the coercive measures are in place.

This presents us with something of a chicken-and-egg problem. If students have no intrinsic motivation to learn something, then what are we to do?

Many teachers will recognise that their students are not particularly motivated to learn the intended curriculum and will seek ways to make them feel more positive towards it. Perhaps they will try to relate the content to something that they believe their students do find interesting, or select an activity that they believe students will enjoy. This is the route towards the Shakespeare raps and poster work that, in my opinion, is responsible for much of the dumbing down that we have seen in Western education systems. It is also enormously patronising. But at least I can buy the idea that students might actually enjoy some of this stuff.

Others have very strange ideas about what motivates children. Some think that setting maths students complex, real-world problems will get them excited about mathematics, whereas all but those who are already quite mathematically able are likely to be frustrated by such a prospect. Others think that situating learning in mundane, everyday contexts will excite students. The psychologist David Perkins offers, ‘Project-based learning in mathematics or science, which, for instance, might ask students to model traffic flow in their neighbourhood or predict water needs in their community over the next 20 years.’

I just can’t imagine many teenagers being particularly turned on by that.

The more radical alternative is to abandon any specific curriculum aims altogether. Why do students need to learn about Shakespeare? He’s just some dead, white dude. What did he ever do for us? Instead, perhaps students should be allowed to follow their own passions, facilitated by school. We tend to think that this will lead to a new generation of engineers and historians, novelists and political activists. This is unlikely to be the case, as classrooms fill with projects on One Direction, Minecraft and monster trucks.

On the other hand, traditional subject content is structured around what the academic Michael Young has called ‘powerful knowledge’, due to its ability to enable us to predict, explain and think in new ways or imagine alternatives. History is full of blood, guts, power and legacy. Literature gives us love, hate and deception. Science has the magic of the stuff of life and the vast, unimaginable expanse of space. This is what we should be teaching students. As adults, it is our responsibility to ensure that students learn these powerful ideas.

Traditional subject disciplines are not all dusty textbooks and blackboards. They have their pleasures, too. Interest might grow as a result of studying a subject and mastering its content. It feels good to improve at something. It is also quite obvious that we are unlikely to develop a passion for the French Revolution unless we know that it took place and something of the narrative surrounding it.

But passions may not necessarily develop. That’s fine. We don’t have to love everything that we do, all the time. It would be a poor lesson for life if this is what we teach our students. I would argue that the mark of an educated person is to know about the things that other people are interested in. This enables us to engage in the conversations that shape our world and the future.

We should stop trying to mess with children’s emotional states. Let us take responsibility, teach them what we think is important and let them make up their own minds.


Fury after children as young as 13 are made to write a fictional 'suicide note' for British High School English homework

A headteacher has been slammed by parents after 12-year-old pupils were asked to write a suicidal character's final diary entry.

English students in year nine and ten at Beauchamps High School in Wickford, Essex, were reading JB Priestley's play An Inspector Calls, which centres around a young woman called Eva Smith who takes her own life.

As part of the topic, the class were set a homework exercise to imagine the character's last journal entry - ultimately penning a suicide note.

At least two parents complained, with some describing the exercise as 'so wrong'.

However, headteacher Bob Hodges defended the assignment, saying the exam board requires students to write about the theme of responsibility.

He said: 'If you read the syllabus, it's all about the themes of responsibility and how each character in the play is responsible. And Eva is one of the characters.'

However, the elder sister of one of the pupils hit out, saying: 'My sister is reading An inspector Calls at school and for her homework she has to write a suicide note from the girl in it.

'Why are teachers thinking it's acceptable to get 13 year-old pupils to write them as if they were the girl?

'Personally, I think this is so wrong and feel really uncomfortable knowing they think this is normal.'

Set in 1912, An Inspector Calls is played out in the home of the wealthy Birling family, who are celebrating the engagement of their daughter Sheila.

The celebrations are interrupted by Inspector Goole, who announces that a woman named Eva Smith - who was dismissed from one of the Birling family's mills 18 months ago - has taken her own life.

Each family member denies responsibility for Eva's death although they all contributed to it.  It is revealed that Eva was pregnant because Eric, Sheila's brother, drunkenly raped her.

Mr Hodges insists the content and theme of the play is entirely appropriate fir young pupils, and the homework task was a well thought out part of the syllabus.

But education campaigner Chris McGovern, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, has compared the English exercise to teaching children about drug by making them take them.

He said: 'I think there are considerable dangers in getting children – and they are children – to put themselves in the position of someone who's going to kill themselves.

'As well as being an almost impossible thing for them to do, it can also be quite emotionally disturbing and disorientating.

'This pseudo-psychoanalysis, which was no doubt set with the best intentions, is very misguided. I think a lot of parents will be concerned. Some of these children may well go on to develop mental health issues. 'Following the syllabus is no excuse at all.'

Lucie Russell, director of media and campaigns at YoungMinds, said: 'Throughout literature there are references to life and death themes.

'The homework task for An Inspector Calls wasn't necessarily wrong, but it needs to be set in the context of preparing and supporting pupils with this issue, communicating with parents that this task will be set and signposting any pupils who may be affected by the issue of suicide to sources of support'.

Headteacher Mr Hodges added: 'My students study Romeo and Juliet. If you look at the syllabus there could be pupils from other schools studying The History Boys, which is about teachers that mess with students. We chose not to study that

'We've had a couple of phone calls from parents, but they understand the situation and some have commented that things have been totally misrepresented - not by us.  'It's a relevant task as part of the GCSE exam preparations.'

In 2012, a Staffordshire school had to apologise after a pupil's mother mistook a creative writing exercise for a genuine suicide note.

The Department of Education confirmed the government does not set any statutory guidance on homework and it is the school's discretion to make those decisions.


Meet the Social Studies Teacher Who Ditched the School Union and Created His Own

Like most teachers, Jim Perialas didn’t have a choice about joining a teachers union. But in 2012, after becoming fed up with rising membership dues and inadequate representation, he and his fellow teachers in the Roscommon area public schools voted to break from the Michigan Education Association.

Instead, they formed the Roscommon Teachers Association, where members pay 40 percent less in dues for what Perialas considers better service. Perialas now serves as the president of that union.

“We believe in the collective bargaining process. However, we’re anti-big union,” Perialas told The Daily Signal in an interview. “The big bureaucratic unions, whether it be in education, the auto industry, or any industry, they’ve become so large that they’re not responsive to the very people, the income stream [they represent]. We left and we now very happily have the Michigan Education Association in the rear view.”


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