Horses for Courses

I must have been mad answering a tweet on a Sunday morning in bed. Instead of enjoying the breakfast my husband had brought for me and reading the paper, I ended up in a twitter fight about posters. My egg went cold. And then today, faced with a to-do list as long as Pinocchio’s nose, I ended up doing it all again. So I thought, in the interests of procrastination, that I would blog. Not just about posters. Frankly, I rarely used them myself; I just take issue at being told what I can and can’t do. No, this is about the increasing misuse of what people like to call “the real world” in justifying practices in school life.

Let’s start with uniform. My eldest son was one of those kids who looked like he’d been dragged across a rugby field, face down, with the entire scrum stamping on his back. Every day. Even as he stepped out of a shower. Clothes were ripped in seconds. Hair grew in all directions. Mud stuck. He was constantly in trouble at school for uniform misdemeanours. His nickname was “Tramp”. I’m not proud. Second son is pristine – it just seems to be the way they were. Anyway. He was told time and again that his appearance would be a problem “in the real world”. He would have to wear a tie. His shoes would have to be polished. No-one would employ anyone who looked “like that”.

He went to Oxford where suddenly it seemed de rigour to turn up to your lectures and ‘tutes’ in a onesie. I guess when you can stagger from your bed to your tutor’s office in less than ten seconds, there seems little point in getting dressed. No-one cared. The tutors were interested in their students’ minds not their dress. Still – that was not “real world” was it? The tie was coming. And there were days where he had to wear gowns. Not dressing gowns.

So he graduated. And got a job. In one of the biggest media agencies, working on a team representing two of the most famous companies in the world. I met him for a drink on Monday night. He stumbled out of his swanky office door in jeans, a t-shirt and converse.

“Don’t you have to wear a suit?” I asked, thinking of the money his grandparents had spent kitting him out for “real world of work”.

“Nah – no-one wears suits,” he said. And I looked around at the commuters pouring out of offices all around us and I saw he was a liar. Some people wore suits. But to be fair, most did not.

Why do we tell children that they must wear uniform because this will be expected of them in “the real world” when it is quite clearly a lie? They may. They may not. There may be other good reasons to insist that children wear uniform, but let’s not pretend that it is in preparation for adult life.

And we’re not much better when it comes to classroom practices. Postergate seemed to centre around the pointlessness of making posters. A lazy time wasting activity for losers. One blogger wrote that “real” historians didn’t make posters so he wouldn’t get children to make them in his classroom. Another complained that posters were “ubiquitous” and “on walls”. I’m not sure where else I’d put them to be honest. The thing is, in the “real world” posters are everywhere. They tell us which tube station to get to. They sell us stuff. They inform us about the exhibit we are seeing. They can even change our minds and make us do things we don’t want to. Like joining the army. The power of the poster to communicate is so widely accepted in “real world” that billions of pounds are spent on producing them. Academics have to make them to take to conferences. Shouldn’t children have an opportunity to examine the role of the poster in our “real world” communication systems? Isn’t this a form of literacy?

When I was doing my O Level, in the “good old days” – one of the tasks on the paper was to take a long passage of text and to precis it into a limited word count. It was a difficult skill to master. It seems to me that effective posters ask exactly this of children. They force a condensing of language to its essential elements, while also perhaps asking that it is memorable and creative. That’s a pretty tough set of skills. Indeed, the old AQA English Language A Level course had a paper that asked students to do exactly this. To take a large amount of textual information and to re-present it in a new form for a specific audience. Sometimes that new form involved making a poster, or leaflet. It was not an easy task and required careful thinking and selection; an ability to know what was relevant, to reword and to summarise with the needs of a particular audience in mind.

I have some sympathy with the view that giving children a glue stick and some sugar paper and telling them to go away, find out and make a poster, is a lazy task. But to frame that task with audience and purpose in mind; to think about intention and effect – these are important “real world” skills. As with any teaching and learning task, it is purpose and quality that matters.

And while I used posters rarely myself, one of the best wall displays I ever had in my room was created by Year 8s. It was a jigsaw of posters, making up a comprehensive view of Elizabethan society in preparation for studying Shakespeare. Each group had a different focus – The Role of Women, The Role of the Monarchy, Poverty and Wealth, The Arts, Religion, Foreign Affairs and so on. Together they gave an overview of some of the issues underpinning the contexts of the texts we would read. It was not frivolous work.

Perhaps it’s time for us to stop trying to control everyone else by imposing our own prejudices on them. And let’s stop trying to justify our attempts to control children by feeding them stories about life in “the real world”, especially if we went straight into teaching from college. Instead let’s focus on the quality of what we do. That we make sure that whatever choices we make, they have integrity and purpose to them and we can explain why we are doing what we do. And that these decisions are always in the best interests of the child. That’s “real” enough for me.

18 thoughts on “Horses for Courses

  1. Agree completely – but wish you hadn’t written it because you are only adding to my procrastination this morning!!!!!!! Trying to get my head round wrting a research proposal for a PhD and keep getting distracted!!😉

  2. Always respect an opposing view, but Not sure you understood DIdau’s blog on posters. He himself points out the many benefits of the well crafted poster, but this isn’t what is done in the vast majority of classrooms where they are set as a lazy activity and have kids spending days filling in bubble writing…. Which then don’t function as posters anyway. I have seen this in a few schools where the literacy is terrible and there is no real literacy strategy/engagement.

    1. Yes, you might want to read mine again as I say almost exactly that. David’s writing is not so oblique that I am incapable of understanding it, but I don’t in fact reference his blog at all. Nevertheless we need to take care not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

      1. Confess to missing some of your emphasis, but don’t see the objection to the objection of crap poster tasks… or have I missed a Twitter storm that got carried away?

      1. No we disagree on fundamental points about what constitutes literacy I think, but concur on the importance of purpose and thinking things through. In any case, this was a blog not so much about posters but about making sure that whatever you do and whatever rules and routines you settle on in school, you should be clear about why and not hide behind some obscure references to the future or the world “out there”.

  3. I think the classroom is the real world and I think everything that my students and I decide to place value on is real. Of course we should think it through, but I am in total agreement with the idea of querying this bizarre received notion of ‘the real world’. As I’ve often said, there is way too much attention paid in schools to this threatening nebulous ‘later’. I’d far rather invest in creating the richest, most worthwhile ‘now’ and let ‘later’ take care of itself.

  4. I must admit, the conflation of posters and uniform eluded my befuddled mind at the end of a long Wednesday. I’ll concentrate harder next time. On the simpler issues I agree that uniform prepares kids for life is a bloody lie. The only viable reasons to have such a bizarre convention include the fact that most (in my experience) students prefer it to own clothes, and the whole keeping class division out of the classroom – both dodge arguments. On posters, the agreement is surely that quality summarising tasks involving posters are very valuable, but a lazy instruction to “do a poster” with no instruction how should be avoided. I am fairly certain that this is common sense, but unfortunately not adhered to in the secondary curriculum in many schools…

  5. But to be a dog with a bone (totally sucked into the debate, in a good natured way) the discussion has already advanced in terms of the claim being that the kind of poster tasks that are set are not the most worthwhile now. I suppose the discussion reverts to what are valuable tasks to engage young people, regardless of any assumptions about the society that they are a part of.

  6. Hi Debra – I had assumed that it must have been an oversight, but I see from your comment above that you deliberately chose not to reference my initial post as the cause of your cold eggs. A link is here if any of your readers are interested in seeing that I have no interest in telling anyone, least of all you, what you can and can’t do:

    Keep up the good work, David

    1. No it wasn’t deliberate. It just wasn’t relevant. The blog didn’t make my eggs cold. The extended twitter conversation did. And this was quite close to telling people what they can and can’t do to be fair :- “@debrakidd @miss_mcinerney If I can influence teachers to spend less time on posters I’ll be chuffed” As was this tweet too “David Didau ‏@LearningSpy
      YEAR 7 TEACHERS: STOP making students waste their time making posters – they are as bored by them as you are!”

  7. Very interesting post. And I often had my Year 5s make posters, as a way of assessing their understanding of, say, a Science concept, without forcing them to sit and write tons of text. They loved it: loved adding diagrams, loved the chance to communicate without using lined paper, loved collaborating with their classmates, loved illustrating them in ways that made the concepts stick in their heads a whole lot longer. I quite like posters!

  8. I love, love, love your blog. And when you spoke at a Union Teaching Conference earlier this year, I loved you then too. But I really disagree with the implications of your comment that teachers need to “stop trying to justify our attempts to control children by feeding them stories about life in “the real world”, especially if we went straight into teaching from college.”

    Why do people (ex-professionals included) seem to think it’s acceptable to claim that teachers don’t live or work in ‘the real world’? We have targets (sorry – “objectives”, but really targets) to pass. We have data to collate; admin to process; deadlines to meet. We attend PR events for the school, we liaise with parents in a world that increasingly treats them as clients. We are micromanaged beyond the levels ever expected in “the real world”, with workload and stress levels increasingly cited as the main reason teachers leave the profession. In addition to that, we employ management and leadership skills both in our workplace projects and with our colleagues and students. We spend hours researching pedagogy, observing and sharing good practice to feed back to our teams. We develop and attend regular CPD, and constantly review and evaluate our professional practice. We work long hours, including on our days off. In the “real world” this might be referred to as flexitime.

    If teaching is not “the real world”, why is it advocated by so many companies as a certified entry point into the world of business? And does anyone with the limited experience of working in only one sector, be it retail, or business, or public sector, or law, or any other workplace domain, have any more experience of “the real world” than teaching staff do? Surely their “real world” experience is simply “different”.

    I’m not naive. I realise that many people still see teaching as a cushy job, and maybe it was, once. But in a world where there is a recognised teacher recruitment crisis, and where 40% of new teachers leave within their first two years, let’s not exacerbate the myth of the classroom utopia.

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