Updated: Nov 10, 2020
"Education is demanding too much too young...and Inappropriate demands lead to failure and demoralisation....”
That’s what 100 university professors stated in an open letter published in the national press in 2014, referring to the new curriculum proposed by the then Education Secretary, Michael Gove. They weren’t alone in their concerns. In the same year, The National Union of Teachers passed a vote of ‘No confidence’ in Gove at their annual conference. Yet the curriculum was implemented and still remains seven years later in 2020.
I remember when I was a kid in primary school being given a small glass bottle of milk to drink each morning. I knew it was nearly break time when I heard the clinking sound in the corridor before the carton was put down outside the classroom door. I loved milk. I guess that’s why that memory stuck with me. It’s a shame the same can’t be said for my learning experience though. The curriculum was bad enough then, now it’s even worse, and that is problematic.
And that’s for one singular reasons: Learning without meaning isn’t really learning at all. It’s just rote learning of facts, akin to eating food with no flavour, or repeating what someone has said without understanding what they are saying.
I am all for high standards, and I read and research and learn all of the time, because I like to understand the world. But these days, if a child does well in school, it’s more a test of their memory than anything else. Intelligence is measured by how well a child can rote learn and recall facts in tests, but that is meaningless. When I was at school when I didn’t understand I never dared say so because I was told off. My youngest tells me that sometimes he goes through a whole day at school understanding virtually nothing. He finds that when there is too much to learn it's just overwhelming and he [phases out. I found it hard not to fidget because pretending to understand was hard, he says the same. So I would retreat into my own little dreamworld and look forward to that milk at breaktime, he does that too. I passed exams by recalling facts and dates and names that I had written down on a piece of paper the night before. Flash memory. But then it was gone. In one ear, out the other.
I have learnt rather a lot about how minds and brains work since then, being a Psychologist and a Cognitive Behavioural Neuroscientist. I have worked out that I just didn’t have a particularly school friendly brain. I can’t learn and retain information unless I understand what it is I am actually learning about, otherwise my brain simply won‘t process what I am hearing. I would say that’s quite wise. What is the point of learning without meaning?
If someone says something that I don’t know anything about, or is too abstract with no real context, it will just feel like a stream of data and I will have to ask for it to be repeated, or just nod pretending that I understand. If I then really focus all of my attention on what is being said and see it in my mind, then I can understand it. I am a thinker, a right brainer, and I understand and connect. I have a brain buzzing with ideas and I can get to the bottom of what is going on. I should have been a detective.
I can just kind of ‘see’. But give me a reasoning test and you can forget it. That brings into question the entire concept of intelligence as we understand it now. I connect information in a big picture way, and when there is enough, it all synchronises and I have insights and ideas that are very intriguing, at least to me. Those are useful skills. Yet I was pretty much written off at school and by my parents.
I am working out how the world works all the the time, but it’s sort of at the cost of everyday things, and time. I don’t remember ‘stuff’ and once in ‘flow’ I hate to disengage or get interrupted by anyone or anything. I am a super focusser. I don’t have a bad memory either, I just have a brain that processes information in a particular sort of logical and efficiently selective way. Rote learning was never my thing, but it would have been far easier for me if it had been at school.
Now it is happening all over again as a parent with two kids with brains rather like mine and it makes me angry. I feel their pain and frustration, particularly having become familiar with the curriculum. It’s abstract, clearly hasn’t been designed by anyone who understands children’s brains and minds, is littered with jargon and nothing connects up. It hasn’t got better over time, but worse. It was hard enough to have to remember what a pronoun was, but now there is a whole new layer of jargon to navigate before you even get to do the learning. My kids struggle to decipher what a question is asking, but so do I, so there isn’t a hope in hell of being able to answer it.
Google ‘Michael Gove, 'education’ and it makes interesting reading. Ken Robinson, the great educational campaigner who very sadly died recently was right when he said that “Schools kill creativity”. Yet at one time there was so much talk of creativity, and 'every child matters', and cross subject learning, and how about preparing children for future life? But school is, I suspect, a struggle for millions of kids every day. This is just a portion of what a 10 year old is expected to learn.....
I can’t imagine that I'm alone in my concerns about the direction Education has taken. It was a blessing to have had the chance to home school in a way because otherwise I wouldn’t have realised why it was that mine were struggling. The indication from school was that they are just pretty average, but in fact they are just too imaginative and don’t march to the drummers beat. It’s reversal.
Schools blame the kids and the parents when it’s the curriculum that’s the problems, but aren’t they the ones meant to be teaching our kids?! Saying that I don’t blame them, intact I feel sorry for the teachers and heads who are caught in the middle of all of this, burnt out and bewildered, having to tow the line. It is very sad.
Schools are turning kids OFF learning and that’s the real problem for me. It's just not the unfolding of an adventure about the world as it should be.
But what’s the solution? Taking them out of school is just too radical and not practical for most people. In any case most people are far too overstretched to even have time to think about it and just accept things as they are.
There is that parental silence issue though. Keeping your mouth shut for fear of being exposed as stupid. The only one who doesn’t understand. Breaking that vow of silence is just too great a risk. Maybe everyone else is more of a computer than me.
Whatever the case, the curriculum is universal and so whichever school a kid goes to, non fee or fee paying, it will be the same. Private education suddenly seems like a rather less attractive option, paying for the privilege of having your child‘s mind filled up with abstractions that they barely understand.
You may not even be aware of what your children are having to learn. If not, take a look at their homework sometime, especially if they are struggling as it may not be for the reasons you think. I just don't understand why everyone takes it on the chin though either, and that 7 years on it remains, particularly in light of publicity this all caused.
Let‘s add to that low self confidence and potentially life long low self-esteem. It’s hardly surprising that mental health issues have risen so much in school age kids really.
Of course it’s hard to know how it’s impacting our kids. The government have protected themselves through redtape and new data protection laws. They have made schools and teachers accountable and so the veil of ignorance continues.
So it’s shut up and deal with it and suffer the consequences. A generation of kids who will either turn out as Brain of Britain or Bugsy Malone. At least my Maths and English has improved...perhaps I can get a job as a teacher next.