A Bad Academic. That’s me!

My name was on that list of academics who denounced Michael Gove’s curriculum plans this week. I was embarrassed that the headlines said ‘top academics’ because although many of my colleagues were, I am decidedly bottom drawer in that respect, but I did feel a little frisson of excitement when I read today that I (and they) are actually now ‘bad academics’, not least of all because we are ruled by our ideology and not our knowledge. I know…the irony!

Michael Wilshaw weighed in, telling us to get out of our ivory towers and into the real world. When did you last teach a class of Year 9s sir? My last was at 2pm today. As those of you who read this blog know, I’m in the classroom every day. My feeling is that an academic involved in education has to be, well, involved in education. But that doesn’t necessarily mean as a classroom teacher. The world would be worse off without the likes of Dylan Wiliam for example, or many of the names who were on that list. Keri Facer for a start, who has led fantastic research based projects into the use of digital technologies in the classroom. Every one of those academics values knowledge. What a ridiculous suggestion that this is an argument about binary oppositions between knowledge and skills. There was no suggestion in the letter that there was no place for knowledge in the world. But knowledge alone, particularly a single minded, prescriptive view of knowledge isolated from context is extremely damaging.

Isaac Newton, describing his very great discoveries said that he was simply a child on a beach, collecting pebbles while the whole vast ocean lay behind him, as yet untapped for its possibilities. He was suggesting that the knowledge we have is as nothing to that which lies yet to be discovered in the future. And the key to that discovery lies in curiosity. Nothing we have ever known or discovered has happened without someone asking a question. What would happen if? Why? What are the consequences of this action? Nothing in Gove’s proposals are future oriented. In looking backwards only, we turn our backs on the ocean.

No-one in their right mind would say, or has said, that learning to read, write and count aren’t vital skills. Maths, computer skills, science are of course crucial to the future survival of the human race. And, as I wrote in my last blog, the Arts are essential components of our humanity. We learn from history so that we won’t repeat mistakes in the future and so that we can celebrate our achievements in the past. And so it goes for every ‘subject’ – there is core, essential knowledge and other knowledge which it is quite nice to know when you get the chance. But there’s too much of it to cram into a curriculum and no-one should try. Because when you do, there is a tendency to skim, to superficially skip over events and information that might have been better done in depth and with contextualised understanding. Gove’s proposals leave little room for depth. And even less for creativity.

In the Ghetto Museum in Terezin, there is a quote – ‘As long as I can create, I know I am alive.’ Our letter suggested Gove’s Gradgrindian approach to education is deadening creativity. At the very time that other countries in the OECD are turning to innovation and enterprise as ways of developing their curriculum models, we are turning away. Let’s not be surprised when we fall further behind. The PISA tests are often quoted as evidence of the need to return to a rigorous form of rote learning, but the whole point of the PISA test is to see what pupils can do when their knowledge is demanded in novel and unexpected situations. In short, their ability to apply knowledge creatively. Britain does quite well on the knowledge aspects of the tests, but poorly on interpretation and application. We HAVE to teach children how to learn if we are to catch up. Apparently that view makes us badass academics. I have to say I quite like it. Because if we don’t speak up, who the hell will?

7 thoughts on “A Bad Academic. That’s me!

  1. Hi Debbie

    I’m so glad you have written this blog. I didn’t notice your name on the list and am embarrassed because in my rashness I wrote the following comment on the Guardian website under the article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2013/mar/20/gove-curriculum-dumb-down-education?commentpage=1

    “I was also very disappointed to see that the academics had decided not to invite the teaching profession to join their list of signatories. It looks bad both ways – it implies teachers wouldn’t support them, and seems to expose their arrogance.

    The teaching profession, involving tens of thousands of people, is a broad church. Some support the whole of the new draft curriculum, some support the broad aims if not all the details, others are disappointed at the curriculum’s scope, lack of ambition and ignorance of effective teaching methods (that’s me), and others who are ideologically wedded to the current curriculum (which you imply includes the ‘progressive’ elite) are diametrically and unreservedly opposed.

    What disappoints me about this letter is the lack of humility and respect it shows to the people who will have to teach the new curriculum. By neglecting to invite them to sign their open letter the academics have completely undermined their argument and shown themselves to be arrogant and out of touch. In my mind, as someone who has read the draft proposal and will have to teach it’s contents, there are many things that need revising (not least the content of the KS2 History POS and the shift away from developing inquiry skills), however, there are also some improvements. Unfortunately this letter, by being so polemic in its opposition and by ignoring the people who are the most expert in this field, damages, rather than promotes the proper and open debate, free of ideology, that is most needed here.”

    On reflection, I think a terrible mistake has been made here and the people who organised the letter, given their time again, should have ‘explicitly’ identified the practicing teachers on their list. By neglecting to do this they have given the architects of the curriculum a stick to beat them with and alienated their natural support. Shame.

  2. Well you have a fair point and don’t feel embarrassed about making it. I think it is really important that both academics and teachers come together on this. I’m quite unusual, but not unique, in sitting in both camps and I think that had there been another 100 teachers, a 100 Heads, a 100 employers, a 100 students, a 100 parents….we’d have quite a revolution. Now that’s given me an idea….

  3. Hi Debra, your performance of Channel Four news was thoughtful and you got across your points well. Why should education be politicised? But you have made a mistake in the petition; the 16th of April is actually a Tuesday.

    I think there should be a similar petition for parents, as I feel that Gove’s dogma is actually harmful for my child. I would have signed otherwise, but I am not a professional teacher.

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