Monday, January 30, 2006

A temporary madness brought on by INSET

Here is a 'parable' that was used in an INSET I attended recently. [This version Googled from The Mind's Retreat but there are many floating around.]

One time the animals had a school. The curriculum consisted of running, climbing, flying and swimming, and all the animals took all the subjects.

The duck was good in swimming, better than his instructor, and he made passing grades in flying, but he was practically hopeless in running. He was made to stay after school and drop his swimming class in order to practice running. He kept this up until he was only average in swimming. But, average is acceptable, so nobody worried about that but the duck.

The eagle was considered a problem pupil and was disciplined severely. He beat all the others to the top of the tree in the climbing class, but he had used his own way of getting there.

The rabbit started out at the top of his class in running, but had a nervous breakdown and had to drop out of school on account of so much makeup work in swimming.

The squirrel led the climbing class, but his flying teacher made him start his flying lessons from the ground instead of the top of the tree, and he developed charley horses from overexertion at the takeoff and began getting C's in climbing and D's in running.

At the end of the year, an eel that could swim well, run, climb, and fly a little was made valedictorian.

As I listened to this, I grew irritated, annoyed and finally angry but could not put into words why. Eventually, I did put it into words. Lots of words.

Once upon a time there were four children, Dean, Elly, Rona and Sam.

Dean was very good at running, but found reading and writing difficult. His teachers, inspired by parables they had read on the Internet, told him not to bother learning to read. He should put all his effort into being a runner. Dean became a world famous athlete, but was stripped of his medals when he failed a drug test because he never learned enough to read the labels on the pills his coach was giving him.

Elly was a problem pupil. She was brilliant at science and maths, but tended to ignore her teacher’s requests to behave, and liked to shout out the answers all the time. Her teachers, keen not to punish her uniqueness after one too many INSETs, let her learn in her own way. Elly did brilliantly, but unfortunately, most of the rest of the students in her class failed because she was so disruptive they were not able to learn. Elly went on to a series of jobs in which she was sacked because she liked to do things her own way.

Rona was brilliant at sewing. Her school wanted her to study a broad and balanced curriculum, but she found all other subjects difficult. Her teachers, concerned that she was unhappy, started to worry about her. They became convinced that she was better off studying the only subject she found easy, so they let her drop all the subjects she found hard. Obviously, if she was not really cut out for the academic life, she should not force herself. Rona became a seamstress and never earned more than minimum wage.

Sam was a great child actor of amazing talent, and his teachers were so impressed with him, they were too intimidated to teach him. They were so worried that despite their knowledge of teaching and learning, their professionalism and reflective practice, they might somehow harm his potential, they decided that he might be better off just doing what came naturally. Sam was a brilliant child star who won many lead roles before dropping off the map as he reached adulthood, unable to cope with criticism or the demands of adult roles.

Luckily for Dean, an adult educator convinced him that there were skills worth mastering even if you aren’t brilliant at them, and he learned to read at night school.

Luckily for Rona, in later life she was inspired to do an Open University Course in Classical Civilisation and after much perseverance, gained a degree.

Luckily for Sam, he went to RADA as an adult, and after some painful encounters, began to realise that even great talent can benefit from studying.

Elly’s class all got on well enough, as their teachers bailed them out and gave them extra help in their lunch-hours.

And Elly became a politician, a PPS and then the Minister for Education, where she did everything her own way and with her own unique talents and skills until she was forced out of power by a disastrous teacher’s strike where thousands of guilt-wracked professionals rose up and demanded they not be subjected to any more cute, ill-thought out analogies.

PS It was quite a good INSET apart from the parable.

Friday, January 27, 2006

On the importance of Media Studies

Last night I watched the Horizon program on Intelligent Design (BBC2) my usual state of tense, miserable anxiety (brought on by television discussions of religion.) The discussion of evolution and education aside, what overwhelmed me was the use of images, music and editing. In fact, there was very little science in what was supposedly a 1 hour 'science' program. The nuts and bolts of the argument about irreducible complexity was glossed over in a few seconds; the main focus was the story of the court case in Dover (USA) and profiling the key figures in the Intelligent Design movement. And here we saw Richard Dawkins interviewed in a booklined study; Michael Behe interviewed in what appeared to be a child's playground; we heard George Bush cut to country and western music and cheesey evangelical roadside posters...

... which led me to think that if our children are going to survive and make judgements in the coming century, they had better be as cine-literate, as media savvy, and as critical as possible when watching TV. In other words, don't they really all need to be studying Media Studies? In British educational circles, Media Studies is the usual shorthand for any course that is dumbed down, non-traditional, not literary, popular with kids and currently getting better pass rates than [insert whatever it is that one teaches.]

I have been guilty of this many times in the past, and I do think that there are too many talented and not so talented sixth formers going off to study media studies at universities with long names. But having shared an office with a media studies teacher I have changed my mind. Being able to read modern media is probably as important a skill to have in your toolkit as being able to spot a poorly reasoned syllogism or a misleading statistic. It would certainly help you with the average BBC2 documentary.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Being impressed with the Internet

Teaching kids their first lesson on the WWW is wonderful. At that stage, the main point I always want to communicate is the fact that the WWW is completely democratic. (because I believe that one of the most important skills a child now needs to survive is the ability to discriminate...more on that another time.) I tell them that there is nothing to stop me creating a web site that says the moon is made of cream cheese. I also tell them that if they copy out that web site and hand it in, they will fail their GCSEs.

'Who do you think is in charge of the Internet?'

'I know! Bill Gates!'
'The government'
'Isn't it The Americans?'

... and one glorious time...

'Is it you, Miss?'

On the other hand, teaching 18 year olds TCP/IP and the concept of URLs and DNSs, the problem is that they have no sense of wonder. The fact that I can type a line from a (much underrated) Britney Spears song into Google, and in less than a second I have the complete lyrics of that song on my screen... the elegance of all those servers acting together... the trillions of packets all colliding and whizzing across the Net...

'Your problem is that you are just not impressed enough with the Internet!'

Actually, the problem is slightly subtler; they all believe that the world of computers is made up of millions of other teenagers all of whom have PCs running identical MS products that are joined together by wires known as the Internet. When you think about it like that, the fact that they all communicate perfectly is not much more impressive than computers themselves, and heaven knows they've lost their sense of wonder there.

On a slight tangent, here's a common exam question...

'A company upgrades its network so that all the employees can send and receive e-mail. State three concerns that the management might have'

It's galling how many teenagers simply answer 'He would be worried that his staff would send e-mails when they should be working'

And that's not because they are making a subtle comment on the tyranny of the e-mail in the modern workplace, it's simply because they don't admit the possibility of an e-mail being used for work. E-mail, by definition, is recreational.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

It's not enough that I spoonfeed you...

There comes a time with every group when I flip, and deliver the baby bird speech. It's come very early this year for one group; this is a very bad sign. The pre-amble varies, but the climax is always the same.

"It's not enough that I spoonfeed you everything on this course. You lot are like baby know, those baby birds who sit in the nest and cry until their mother goes out and brings them food... but you lot, you don't just want me to feed you, you want me to eat your food for you, digest it, and then vomit it into your mouths."

And a small voice speaks in the silence. "Please miss, don't throw up in our mouths."

"It's a metaphor!"