An Invasive Alien Species Is Taking Over Education
In The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Dr Miles Bennell realises that more and more of his patients and friends have been replaced by extraterrestrials. They look and act human, but they are not – and nobody is safe. I have noticed something similar happening in secondary education.
I am witnessing a slow but sure infiltration of schools by humourless men and women in suits and shiny shoes. You find them at every level, from classroom teachers and to senior leaders. You know who they are, colleague.
They cannot abide deviation from lesson plans and their hallowed assessment objectives. They frown when you end a lesson on The Great Gatsby by teaching students the charleston from a YouTube video. They tut when they see you and your class heading out to the nearest shady tree to read poems about nature. They simply cannot understand when you abandon a lesson entirely to focus on debating in groups. If it’s not assessed, it’s worthless.
A different breed
When I was a young teacher, I worked in a school that had a farm. The science teacher in charge of it was never seen in a suit, and his hair rarely encountered scissors or comb, but he was widely adored, even by the most difficult students. When things got too lively in his classes, he would take them out to be with the animals – he said this could calm the most challenging pupils and give them a sense of perspective. He also said that this was a place where students would ask questions, and where he did his best teaching.
He retired years ago and I don’t think he would make it in the profession today. He would be pulled up for his sartorial choices, and his regular abandonment of the curriculum in favour of student-centred learning would almost definitely put him high on a hit list.
The pod people do not care about enjoyment. They killed the whole-school Book Day at my secondary: it’s OK for the (largely ignored) year 7 and 8 students, of course, but no pupil over 13 could possibly have their learning “disrupted”. The pod people don’t see the value of an entire school devoting a day to books of all kinds, across the curriculum, bringing in writers, poets, songwriters and publishers. Learning means a monotonous march towards target grades.
Take my subject, English. I remember a time when my lesson aims were hazier, but my students’ education was just as good. For example, language classes often involved discussions led by pupils’ own research. If I had filled in a detailed lesson plan, my learning objective might have said “live in a different world for an hour”, “develop imagination”, and “explore challenging concepts”.
But the pod people love lesson plans that put the cart of accuracy before the proverbial horse of imagination: ‘‘to consider how the author uses adjectives to build atmosphere”, “to understand the difference between a colon and a semi-colon”. We are told to deliver our lessons over PowerPoint 10 slides, with a clear objective and plenary, and a measurable learning goal that must be achieved.
My students of recent years can analyse – boy, can they analyse – but they are not learning to think outside the box. They will learn to do this, because they are bright and creative, but the process will take much longer than it should. The human imagination will eventually burst out of the most worn-down exam-passing machine, but it would be gratifying if education unlocked rather than restricted this aspect of life.
I know I am the dinosaur, and I chose to remain in the classroom rather than go for the career progression that is so beloved of the pod people. But to my fellow eccentrics and creatives, I say: do not be disheartened, resist becoming like them. Hang on to your sense of humour and encourage your students to create and innovate, and to use their imaginations. Above all, remember that the tide will turn again.
Every new initiative in education is a reaction to what has preceded it. We had no coursework, then 100% coursework, then a gradual slimming down, until we got back to where we started: no coursework. We had “chalk and talk”, then group work, then developing ideas through discussion, now we’re at entertainment through PowerPoint (which is just a technologically impressive form of chalk and talk). English Language examinations began with comprehension, analysis of grammar and précis, then became focused on creative processes, allowing students time to write at length with bare stimulus, now we’re back where we started. What goes around has come around.
The problem is that the pods believe their own myth; that education is about results. But the results-led curriculum never originated with children, it was always about the league tables, competition between schools. True education involves opening minds not closing them down; widening vision, not cramming it into a two-hour slot at the end of five years and making that the main thing. Education is about the big questions, the unusual approaches, the challenge to the norm.
In The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, things don’t end very well for poor Dr Miles Bennell. He is left, a minority, in an uncertain world. I don’t know where the next educational tide is taking us, but I can only hope that teachers will resist. Our students will be so much better off for it.