Thursday, 8 December 2011

The English Secondary Education System: a study in Fascism?

English teachers of a certain age will remember a book by Morton Rhue. "The Wave" is a short novelisation of a television play which told the true story of what happened in a school in California. Those dwellers in the world of Gove should read it and weep, for this seemingly inocuous little read has much to tell us about the direction of travel of our very own so-called liberal/progressive, insipiently Academy orientated education system.

"The Wave" is about a young history teacher, Ben Ross, who was frustrated at the lack of connection his students were able to make with the impact of the Third Reich. They weren't 'getting it' and couldn't see how it could have happened or indeed how the German people could have colluded in such a regime. So, being an imaginative and idealistic young teacher, he came up with a plan to personalise the classroom experience that would show the students once and for all the horrendous consequences of fascistic learning practices.

The class as a whole agreed to 'buy-in' to the experiment so that they could experience fascism first hand. His experiment entailed a strict regime of quick fire question and answer sessions delivered by a teacher (him) to whom the class gave absolute power. They stood to attention as he came in, all questions were closed, praise given to those who could and derision to those who couldn't. More rules were added and because the experiment spread like wildfire throughout the school it was named "The Wave".  

It spread because initially it was a huge success.  Grades improved as those who tended towards recalcitrance couldn't bear the peer pressure of not performing well. Indeed one boy, stereotypically disengaged and disenfranchised, grew in confidence and stature as the new 'structure' gave him the precious boundaries he was looking for. Soon competition was rife. Essays handed in on time, students insisting on grades the next day - Ross could hardly keep ahead of it all nor could he believe his good fortune.

Then the bullying started as students who couldn't make the grade were picked on to up their game and not let the class down in the new competitive environment. Fights broke out; liberal thinkers (represented by the school newspaper editorial team) got beaten up.  Our disconnected teenager became frontrunner in the new Stasi.  However the most telling issue that emerged - remember that this is a true story - is that after the initial successes the raised attainment was soon to plateau. Ross discovered that deep learning was not happening. All that mattered was the grade and the grade alone. Critical thinking was thrown to the wind, sacrificed to the altar of target.

I've been working in schools all my life and have seen the eternal pendulum of initiative and counter-initiative swing many times. The 'change agenda' drives the swing and beats the heart of leadership conferences and training courses in pursuit of the magic number picked out of the air by some Secretary of State with an opinion.   Schools are hugely data rich.  There are CATs tests, SATS tests (blessedly waning now), Reading Age tests, FFT data, all shouting to us what a child can and can't do.   School managers are driven to raise attainment by X percentiles per term, reducing education to  lesson objectives throwing wisdom to the wind in this sea of information. 

This is really the point of "The Wave". Emphasis was on target and not on learning and there is a well  recognised basic four-point plan for achieving targets in our secondary schools today:

  • Lessons need to be in several parts so that the learning is 'chunked up' - (what a marvellous sick metaphor this is!).  Though this is aimed at breaking down concepts into more manageable...chunks... it also leads to grazing.  Where text and figure are visited rather than properly explored. 
  • Needs should be differentiated and data can help in this, but in Year 11 children are physically separated and cohorts often taught offsite so their disaffected behaviour doesn't 'contaminate' those willing to learn.  Translate unwillingness to learn into inability to work the system and behaviour issues properly become a function of that system.
  • For some key students, those on the D/C borderline hot-housing has to be the order of the day.  Often this will entail losing a subject - usually an arts or humanities - in order to spend more time on subjects that will make the school pass its targets.  They may express a concern that a student is 'taking on too much' or 'does Jason really need Geography'.  A conversation which is pure code for 'we need him to pass his maths if we are to get 55% A-C.'  (By the way, Jason actually may not need Geography.  He might need bricklaying or horticulture but this would divert the school from its targets too - and that's a whole other story!)
  • Finally in order for the kids to learn, they have to attend the school!  No matter how bad the learning experience is, attendance is obviously mandatory.  All schools have attendance targets too and it's cleary a fairly good idea to get the students in, but instead of making our secondary school environments places of curiosity and excitement (like many of our primary schools, for example), some decide to bully and hassle parents through letters home - and, of course, comms systems which land texts into phones as early as 6.30 in the morning.

Chasing a target doesn't improve the learning. Chasing a moving target shallows the learning even further and disengages those who yearn for exploration, depth and connection.  Universities mourn the loss of basic literacy and independent learning; gnash their teeth at the spoon-feeding their students have grown to expect from their teachers.  And more... mandatory targets create a huge fear of failing and by this I do not refer just to students.  Exam boards, so terrified of not meeting commercial targets (yes, commercial) import droves of examiners into schools to teach cohorts exam techniques and more telling than this... we have only this week learned how the exam boards blur the lines between explication and just cheating in this inexorable race to the bottom.  

There are many theories about why Germany lost the war. The most telling one is that Hitler was crass and stupid, unable to bear intellectual engagement culminating in the 'figure in action' which was his book burnings.  A product of shallow learning if ever there was one. "The Wave", which demonstrates these dangers itself was banned, I believe, in Australia. One of its side-effects was that other classes that read the book attempted to replicate the damaging effects of the Wave again by pressing their teachers to help them discover for themselves if it worked.

Well Mr. Gove. It doesn't.   It hasn't. 

You can search for Morton Rhue's book from the Radishwebstore or by clicking on the title below:

"The Wave" by Morton Rhue.