Childish thinking

A writer branded ‘unteachable’ as a child, and diagnosed as severely dyslexic aged 12, wins children’s literature’s most prestigious prize, the Carnegie medal. An Indian professor and TED prize-winner proposes an educational system that produces people who can ’think like children’. And the newly appointed Children’s Laureate calls for children to be read to daily in schools.

In the educational universe envisioned by Michael Gove, Sally Gardner, the Carnegie medal winner, would find herself being ‘tested into failure … depression and worthlessness’. Sugata Mitra, professor of educational technology at Newcastle University, would have to resign himself to a system whose ultimate aim is to produce mono-disciplinary academics of the kind famously described by Sir Ken Robinson as those whose only use for their bodies is to convey their heads to meetings. And the teachers that Malorie Blackman encourages to read stories to their pupils every day would be more likely to find themselves having to test five-year-olds on the meanings of those stories.

Gove’s universe sounds remarkably similar to the one I was educated in, which surely of itself makes his current plans retrograde. My education consisted of being tested and tested and tested again in three subjects, two of which, Latin and Greek, I found extremely difficult, and the third, Ancient History, merely dull (as it was taught to me, at any rate). I left school in 1967 with miserable exam results, rejected by Oxford.

Yet by the standard of the day I was extremely well educated. I could translate bits of Homer and Virgil, had acted in a Greek-language production of Euripides’ The Bacchae, and could write Latin verse (held to the metre by the revolting mnemonic: ‘down in a deep dark dell / sat an old sow chewing a beanstalk / out of her mouth came forth / yesterday’s dinner and tea’). In fairness, that education did  give me an understanding of the roots of a large part of our English vocabulary, which of course is handy for a writer. But the thing I was actually good at, imaginative writing, was never even acknowledged.

Raw creativity, the power of a child’s imagination and ability to express itself, has always baffled our educationalists. They just don’t know how to harness it or value it. And when reactionary forces are in charge, as they are now, they fall back on rote learning and cramming to produce a set of skills which are almost wholly redundant in a world where a Google search can provide answers in seconds. A world where, it seems to me, the real visionaries are those who understand that creativity, cross-disciplinary thinking, collaborative problem-solving, intelligent use of the available technology – all those things children will do quite naturally if given the freedom – must be placed centre stage.

Professor Mitra won his $1m prize for putting a computer in a hole in the wall in a Delhi slum for children to use freely and without tuition. Sally Gardner’s prize-winning novel is about a dyslexic boy who stands up against a repressive regime. Malorie Blackman’s many young adult novels have allowed teenagers to think about the serious issues of society today in a far more penetrating way than any study of set texts or questions in an exam paper can ever promote.

I once heard a former Children’s Laureate, Michael Morpurgo, say: ‘The adults who really interest me are the ones who know that the child in them is their soul’. These adults are the ones who know that play and learning and reasoning and discovery are separated by the finest of lines, if at all. They are the ones that this Government’s approach to education is designed to strangle in the playground. And they are the ones we need if we’re really going to cope with a future that we cannot even imagine five years hence, let alone when today’s primary school children enter the adult world. My own education may just have been fit for purpose in the 1960s. It certainly wouldn’t be today.

About Jamie Jauncey

Author, writer, blogger, facilitator, musician, co-founder of Dark Angels and The Stories We Tell
This entry was posted in Creativity, Education, Stories and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Childish thinking

  1. Moira Munro says:

    I’ve been nodding my head all the way through. Yes, yes, yes.
    Terrifying for parents of school-age children.
    The Scottish curriculum seems to have a much better idea of the whole person and every now and again I hear of various experts I admire who have been brought over to inform the Scottish Parliament’s work on education. Hope so, anyway.

  2. Steve Rawson says:

    Jamie, an outstanding post this week. Not that every week we aren’t enriched by your writing becuase we are. This week’s post however strikes right at my heart. I am the product of a rather forced and conventional educational route through school and university into a career of little interest. “What should I do at university?” “Well you’re good at maths, physics and all that stuff and there are planty of engineering jobs around so do that.” “Ok!”
    As Ken Robinson says, we have an educational system designed to produce workers to feed the industrial revolution. The sad thing is that our political leaders have not noticed, or haven’t got the gumption to do anything about the fact that the industrial revolution, at least in this country, is over! We are in the age of creativity and we’re driving creativity out of our kids on an industrial scale. It happened to me and I feel like I’ve spent the last 25 years figuring out what I should have been doing rather than what I was obligated to do. We need to be agile, imaginative and resourceful to succeed in today’s world of ever increasing speed of change. We don’t need to be able to absorb & regurgitate dull facts over & over again to prove our intelligence. We need to be creative & free thinking. If only I had met Ken Robinson back in 1986 and he had said to me “What are you passionate about? What are you great at? Because it’s at the intersection of these two things that you path lies.” I went for what conventional wisdom thought would get me a good job at the end of a rather boring educational path. Shame that nobody noticed, including me, that you have to be excited, motivated and energised to be really good at anything, no matter how ‘intelligent’ at regurgitating facts you are. We should be asking “how are you intelligent?”, not “how intelligent are you?” Good old Ken Robinson. Michael Gove, are you listening?

  3. I agree passim. With you and Steve Rawson. Perhaps we’ll bring out some of these issues at our Edinburgh Book Festival event in August

  4. Caroline says:

    Jamie – I’m really sorry to hear that you had boring teaching of ancient history. There are some great great ancient stories in there (even if they’re a little bloody, and definitely not fitting current conceptions of human rights!) Similarly Latin and (I only did a very little) Greek.
    My first (one room-for-all-the-classes) primary school set all of us work to do every week, with Friday afternoons playing if we’d done it all – but didnt get upset at all when my best friend Richard Pilgrim and I played all week (speaking only in words beginning in p / writing stories in code) and did what we hadnt done on Friday afternoons.
    So I learnt to subvert / work round systems; and that learning and playing are pretty much interchangeable (I can still remember my excitement when I was taught long multiplication). Which I’ve definitely not forgotten now!
    Thanks for reminding me what a great start I had. Why cant everyone have as good a time?

  5. I agree with your general thesis, but you can’t blame Michael Gove for the state education is in.

    For 40 years governments have been in thrall to education theorists, who have invariably got it wrong, so they just move on to the next theory. This has been staunchly and bullyingly backed up by intransigent and luddite teaching unions.

    The standard of English teaching, for example, is appalling. It’s all very fine to say that self expression is paramount. But if you’re not taught the rules of grammar, spelling and punctuation, your ability to express yourself – even creatively – is massively stunted. That, and the lack of maths ability (don’t get me started) also renders huge swathes of the population unemployable.

    The main creative project in education is the monitoring and manipulation of data to fool us that pupils are doing better than they are. The really deep problem is that we are on our second generation of teachers who are themselves a product of this degenerative system.

    For example: why are we teaching French and German? Because we don’t have teachers qualified in Mandarin. And, why are we teaching Word and Excel when we should be teaching coding, so that kids can create their own programmes? Because teachers aren’t qualified in digital skills. I have recently been asked (by a deputy head) if I could take on some music pupils and show them the basics of Logic. Logic is a recording programme (no coding required) – but even that is beyond the music ‘teachers’. I have also recently coached two pupils who were heading for a D or worse in their English GCSE. The quality of their work, and of their teachers’ marking of it, was beyond belief. (The first of these pupils ended up with a B. I don’t have the other mark yet).

    As another deputy headteacher friend of mine has been saying for the past 10 years: “Close down all the teacher training colleges and start again.”

    These are arguments I’ve been having since I was 21 and I’m now 64. The inexorable dive to the bottom is profoundly depressing. Michael Gove, excellent and bright fellow that he is, is trying to get back to the basics. Unfortunately, as you so rightly say, the basics have radically changed.

  6. Olivia says:

    Just another study today which supports more play, less sitting at desks…
    (although not sure why just ‘bright’ children, however that is defined)

  7. Jasmine says:

    What a lovely post! I had the opposite experience – when I went to primary school in the late 70s / early 80s, we had very little structure – we called our teachers by their first names, and I think a rabbit roamed around the halls with us (I used to feed it the apple my mother gave me every day, to her dismay). Our greatest treat was to be a bit naughty so we’d get sent to our headmaster’s office, as we all loved him so – he’d read us poetry at lunchtime, and we loved that too.

    So, on the other end of the spectrum, while I can happily harness my imagination, I sometimes find that self-discipline is an issue…

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