Thursday, 12 March 2015

Normal

Here's another passage from Primary Education (1959):

"The 'Normal'

As children grow up, the differences between them increase in every way.  Even the youngest differ widely in their natural endowments, their upbringing and their experience, and these are influences which produce a great diversity of talents and temperaments among individuals and make each child a unique person.  These differences and the diversity to which they give rise are not always obvious; they can only be discovered through patient study of individual children.  Yet their discovery is supremely important for the teacher since they show how wide are the limits of normal development and how varied its forms. (...) It is quite normal for children of the same age to develop at different rates and for some children to develop quickly in some respects and more slowly in others.  A child may be more gifted in art or music than in other fields, slow in learning to talk and to read but precocious in learning to walk and in making friends.  Moreover, it is normal for a child to develop not at a steady rate from year to year, or even from month to month, but at an uneven pace.  An education which attempts to provide fully for such a diversity of aptitudes and abilities must develop practices to deal with these diversities."

All teachers know the truth of this.  Most human beings know the truth of this.  So why do we now say that all children have to reach a certain standard by a certain time?  They are even expected to move on by a certain number of 'sub-levels' each year, and some have their learning 'accelerated'.  It is normal for us all to be different.

Schools claim to celebrate difference.  My impression is that most of what they do - or is it what government wants them to do? - is aimed at making everyone the same.

The picture at the top is of a five-year-old attempting to make a bird's nest.  I posted about this some time ago, but only just found the photo.


Thursday, 19 February 2015

Calm and Serenity

Here's another quote from 'Primary Education' (HMSO 1959):

'There is, in good schools, enough leisureliness to prevent the children or teachers feeling hurried.  Children of five are still slow in doing quite simple things, such as washing and going to the WC, or putting away their materials and preparing to move from one place to another.  From a sense of there being time to do what has to be done, comes a feeling of calm and serenity.  Without serenity no environment can be satisfying to a child; nor should he be forced beyond a pace at which he can go without confusion.'

When I started teaching it was just about OK to say things like that.  Nowadays people look at you as if you are crazy.  Once I taught a boy, let's call him 'A'.  He moved to the school where I was teaching from another one nearby and I met his previous teacher.  'Poor Andrew,' she said.  'He's just not very bright, I'm afraid.'  On his first day he said: 'I don't have much luck, Mr May.  My dad left, and then we had to move house and come here.  Now my dog's died.'  Then he settled down to make a model with cardboard and a roll of sellotape.

Every day after that he came to school and spent most of his time making things with cardboard and paper and sellotape.  His reading and writing weren't so hot, but if you wanted a good model 'A' was your boy.  A dozen years later I was passing through the village, stopped at the Post Office and there was 'A's mother.  'Guess what,' she said.  'He's doing engineering at 'A' level.  And he still gets through a couple of rolls of sellotape every week.'

'A' needed space and time and serenity and calm.  I'm not sure he would get them today, because he would need to progress through his levels and sub-levels on a termly and half-termly basis.

The picture is from 'The Practical Infant Teacher' (1929)  It's an example of a sentence to be used in 'the sentence method' of teaching children to read.  I am fond of the sentence method.  It is closely related to the 'look and say' method, which is how I learned to read.   More of this another time!


Friday, 13 February 2015

Suggestions for Teachers

I've given this blog a new title and a slightly new direction.  The new title is from a Norman MacCaig poem which I've written about before.  I want to share some of my favourite things from my collection of old education documents.  They remind me that English primary education used to be the envy of the world.  Occasionally I might write about other things too, like bikes or guitars or even writing.  But just now there will be regular posts about education.

In front of me now I have PRIMARY EDUCATION, subtitled "Suggestions for the consideration of teachers and others concerned with the work of Primary Schools." (1959)  How polite HMI used to be!

I read the pages of this book and find myself nodding in agreement with almost everything it says.  Don't be put off by the use of 'he' and 'his' for every child and teacher - this, from the introductory pages, still makes perfect sense to me.

The primary school should not (...) be regarded merely as a preparatory department for the subsequent stage, and the courses should be planned and conditioned, not mainly by the supposed requirements of the secondary stage, nor by the exigencies of an examination at the age of eleven, but by the needs of the child at that particular phase in his physical and mental development.

And this:

No good can come from teaching children things which have no immediate value for them, however highly their potential or prospective value may be estimated.

Handbooks of Suggestions for the Consideration of Teachers were published at intervals from 1905 until 1959.  The next passage was written in 1918, repeated in subsequent editions, and quoted again in 1959.

'The only uniformity of practice that the Board of Education desire to see in the teaching of Public Elementary Schools is that each teacher shall think for himself, and work out for himself such methods of teaching as may use his powers to the best advantage and be best suited to the particular needs and conditions of the school.  Uniformity in details of practice (except in the mere routine of school management) is not desirable even if it were attainable.  But freedom implies a corresponding responsibility in its use.

However, the teacher need not let the sense of his responsibility depress him or make him afraid to be his natural self in school.  Children are instinctively attracted by sincerity and cheerfulness; and the greatest teachers have been thoroughly human in their weakness as well as in their strength.' (Handbook 1918)

This is the heart of it.  It's why teaching was, and still can be, a great job.  But successive governments have made it far harder for a teacher to be their 'natural self'.  The principle that 'uniformity in detail is not desirable' has been ditched.  The teacher's world is dominated by the measurement of their efficiency in getting children to progress through defined benchmarks.  Instead of child-centred education we now have data-centred education.  Why did we let people tell us that child-centred education was a bad thing?   Here, to finish for this week, is the opening paragraph of Chapter 2 of the Plowden Report from 1967. The picture at the top is from the frontispiece of the report.  Not much uniformity there.

 'At the heart of the educational process lies the child. No advances in policy, no acquisitions of new equipment have their desired effect unless they are in harmony with the nature of the child, unless they are fundamentally acceptable to him.'

If you want more of this stuff, come back next week!