Thursday, 14 June 2018

National unity? I don't think so.

One of the great claims of the Conservative Party is that it is the truly national, unionist party of the UK. It will always try to portray itself as more patriotic, more loyal to the crown, more prepared to 'defend' the country than any other party. Its real job has been to 'unite' the country to the needs of big business and it frequently uses the flag, the monarchy, and various vague but potent ideas around being the 'natural' party of power, or that they are decent people because they wear suits and talk with southern-sounding RP accents, or that because 'business' is supposedly naturally a 'good thing' for the country as a whole, and because many of the MPs and ministers are themselves business people (owing vast amounts of shares, sitting on company boards etc) then it's 'natural' that we should all support them and 'pull together'.

This of course obscures many things: such as that they are essentially a party (especially when in government) working for the few not the many, putting profit before people, trying to control what they call the 'labour market' (basically that means working people) so that it benefits the few, following fads of places like Harvard business school, trying to depress wages, cut the public sector, trying to wangle the taxation, borrowing, money-printing systems so that they can create vast amounts of cheap dosh for capitalists, and/or bump up vast amounts of private 'small' credit card debt on to the mass of the public because their wages are not sufficient to buy the goods and services being produced.

But let's look again at the flummery of their claim to be the 'national', unifying force. Once the UK got itself into the EU there was a grumbling consensus that this was OK-ish. Yes, some huge EU enthusiasts, some agnostics, and some hugely opposed. For me, it was just another arrangement for 'capital' neither better or worse than what was there before. I didn't go along with Tony Benn's claim that 'democracy' was at stake because UK democracy is no better than anyone else's and probably worse - monarchy, house of lords, constituency-based first part the post elections, established church, rigged judicial enquiries, massive bias towards privately educated oxbridge representation at the top of government and civil service, massive undermining of local government...

So, when UKIP started to get traction, partly (largely?) off the back of a disgusting, xenophobic campaign against 'migrants', and the Tories tried to see it off with a referendum, the whole 'unity' 'uniting' ideology has fallen apart. The old consensus (I'm not trying to claim that this was a great thing in itself - far from it) has fallen apart. Right the way across the ruling class, the professional caste, big business, medium business, small business there are huge rifts, wars, disputes, bitterness. I hear arguments being made on the basis of what can be no better than wild guesses - to do with who will trade with who, at what cost, who will want these kinds of good, who won't, who needs who the most or the least. At the heart of these arguments, as I say, they mostly seem to be extreme guesswork, hardened and reinforced into in/out, yes/no, right/wrong positions. That's on both (or all!) sides of the arguments. But ultimately, they are all 'business' arguments. They are about how well, chunks of capital based in the UK (not even 'UK' ones only!) will thrive (or not) in some new arrangement.

Now the disturbing thing about this (for me) is that these 'business' arguments have dragged in people whose only means of livelihood is their ability to sell their labour-power. Suddenly, people working in hospitals, on the shop-floor, in offices, on zero-hour contracts, being 'self-employed' earning less than £30,000 a year, have been successfully recruited and co-opted into arguments about what's best for massive companies and for their spokespeople in the Tory Party!

This depresses me. The interests of working people in a capitalist system are not the same as the owners of big business. An owner is running the business in order to make money. When it doesn't make money, they sack people. See Rolls Royce this morning. They don't 'create jobs'. They 'use jobs'. When they can't use jobs (to make profits) they get rid of jobs. In fact, there is a strong interest for an owner to employ the least number of people on the least possible wages.

However, the task of getting nearly everyone in the UK to spend hours arguing over what arrangement will be best for big business, is usually made much easier when working people can be recruited and co-opted for the big national project, like supporting Margaret Thatcher in her job of making the country 'free of the unions' (so that working people can't negotiate higher wages for themselves!) , or 'freeing' people to sell their council houses (so that their children can't have a secure cheap home to live in!) and that sort of thing.

But now, this 'national' project is falling apart. There is division in almost all the areas where the Tories usually have (or at the very least claim they have)  unity e.g. around the nation (Scots walking out of the HofC yesterday), around the 'national interest' (at least 5 competing scenarios about what is 'best for Britain') and bitter division amongst top Tories themselves (e.g. Johnson versus May).

Sad to say, the Labour Right are doing their best to join in with this 'best for business, best for Britain' battle. To my mind, the best card that Labour could have played was - yes - an opportunist one: "We are not in power, we can't be in power until the five year term is up because of the way the system was rigged by Cameron; there was a referendum with a result, we are not in favour of reneging on it, that's the end of the story; we are not allowed in to the negotiations (in 'national terms' and 'democratic terms' there was in fact no reason why the negotiations should have been confined to one party only but that's just a boring constitutional matter, so I won't dwell on it), at the end of the day, the best thing that Labour can do is sit back and watch the ruling order (as represented by the Tories), pull themselves apart disagreeing over how best to secure a lowest of the low wages economy, low taxes for the superrich, unregulated City, and as many tax havens as possible."

Sadly, the Labour Right think (as they always do) that they are better at running capitalism than the Tories and so keep jumping up and demanding to be counted. All this does is make it more likely that a social democratic, left-leaning Labour government is less likely to be elected. The media can say, "Ner ner ner... both sides are as divided as each other", as if both sides are in the same position vis a vis the negotiations. Corbyn has been trying to make that point, but it's been heavily undermined by the Labour Right.

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Word gap. Is it?

I'm reading a good deal about the 'word gap'. This is the observation that there is a huge gap in the number of words known by different children. This blog is a query.

Language is always more than just words. It's about how we sequence words, whether in passages of speech or writing or whether in conversation. Random production of words is not language. So, if we're going to talk about a 'word gap', we had better be sure that this is at best a shorthand for saying 'language gap' as just counting different words will not tell us enough about how children are communicating with each other. 

This leads to 'methodology' - that is, how was the data collected to find out about this word gap. Ever since this extraordinary study by William Labov:

we have known some important stuff about the effect the researcher has on the people the researcher is talking to - in particular in relation to language. Adults talking to children is no simple thing either.

So, my query is this: in the studies of the 'word gap', how was the data collected? Was any of the data collected when children talked to each other with no adult present? Was any of the data collected when children were e.g. planning a task, talking about something that they had been doing, telling stories, discussing a point of view, or something that is in, say, a picture book? Are there transcripts of these adult-free conversations available which prove the existence of both a word-gap and a communication gap (ie involving sequences of words)? And can any of this be linked to a class or culturally linked failure on the part of significant numbers of children? 

You can get in touch with me on twitter, Facebook or via the email on my website. 

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Why can't we have the arts interpreting the arts again?

One of the things you notice when you go to country houses, and old art galleries is that there was a period from about 1700 to about 1850 when many famous painters spent most of their time painting 'classical' scenes. These were paintings that depict famous scenes from classical mythology, mostly Greek and Roman. Anyone reading this, who has paid visits to these places will remember staring at intertwined beasts and semi-naked men and women, half-man-half-beast creatures, and naked women in woods or by the sea. We peer at the caption and see a classical name or two and then rake through our memory to see if we can remember the exact myth or epic the scene were looking at comes from. 

The point here is that these highly rated paintings were 'interpretations'. They were ways for painters to say something about love, sex, danger, hope, and many other features of human existence using or adapting a moment from a written text - by, say, Homer or Virgil and the like. And this was a high status activity. It was high art. It was rated. It was high art. 

Now race forwards to our classrooms and we see children and school students poring over 'texts' - stories, poems and plays, in order to - to what? To 'comprehend' them ('comprehension') to show that they can 'retrieve' what's there (supposedly), to grasp what has been 'inferred', to show that they can understand 'structure' and 'sequence', to show why a text or parts of a text is 'effective' (who decides what is effective? People who write exam questions?), and, quite often, what 'the author intended' (how do they know? are they mind-readers?).  All this is sometimes called 'interpretation' but it really isn't. Interpretation is a broader idea that may well involve some if not all of these previous aspects but something more, something that involves weighing up possibilities, including opinion, possibilities, provisional ideas, discussing why and how we come to conclusions about poems, stories and plays, making informed guesses (which is what most criticism is anyway!). I've put my thoughts about how we can create more open criticism into classrooms in my three booklets: 'Poems and Stories for Primary and Lower Secondary Schools', 'Why Write? Why Read?' and 'Writing for Pleasure' - all available via my website. 

However, even if this idea of interpretation is broader - and I would argue - more valid, it leaves out the notion that the arts themselves are a valid form of interpretation - the very thing that those artists did with Greek and Roman myths. Somewhere along the line in the creating of schools, schooling, and the modern curriculum, the people who run the show downgraded the use of the arts to interpret the arts. It's as if the only thing that's valid and worthy is 'textual analysis' - a craft originally created and perfected for the purpose of divining God's intentions from biblical texts - or 'exegesis' as it was called. Education imported 'exegesis' and applied it to literature and put the methods of such painters as David or indeed the pre-Raphaelites like Burne-Jones out the door. 

I would like to re-state the case for the arts as one way to interpret in valid and important ways. When I say, for example, that one of the ways we can write poems is to read a poem and then say to ourselves, 'I can write like that' - that's a way of interpreting a poem. It may be that we will adopt the poem's sound, or shape, or imagery, or meaning, or we may be 'triggered' by one single aspect of a poem: a mood, a phrase, a suggestion. These are interpretations. They involve selecting an aspect, generalising it in our heads - perhaps in an instantaneous or intuitive way - and turning that generalisation back into a form, a shape, a set of words that conveys something that is in common with the original. This is no trivial act. It is in fact a step towards abstraction, finding something in common between two things, two phenomena. 

To draw, sing, dance, make films, make pottery, write poems, stories, plays in response to any other art form, or - as we're talking about here, literature - is to my mind one way to interpret. In a classroom context, it can be the first, the middle or the last way. Wherever it sits, it will be valid and can, if we want it to , contribute to the written analyses required by the education regime, or they can be treated as entirely valid in themselves, boosting pupils' sense of entitlement to explore texts through a medium they are confident in. 

In turn, these new creations - let's say it's a film shot on a mobile phone - can then become sources of conversation and debate about how the one relates to the other. These conversations will inevitably include generalisations and abstractions - the sort of thing we rate highly in education: 'higher order thinking' as we call it. Indeed, we watch TV art programmes when clever art critics do just that - explore the interplay between e.g. myth and painting, emotions and ideas. 

This short blog, then, is a plea for us to not forget the arts as an interpretive method. A poem about a poem; a picture about a moment in a play; a film about a feeling in a novel and hundreds of other uses of the arts to interpret the arts. 

Friday, 18 May 2018

Education - what for? Where? When? How?

I've been trying an experiment. What happens if you put 'how', 'why', 'when', 'what for', 'where', before the word 'education'? 

Let's start with 'where?'

Mostly, we think of education in quite a narrow way in terms of 'where?' It's the stuff that goes on in schools and colleges, supposedly. As it happens, when I was writing my memoir 'So They Call You Pisher!' I reminded myself that a huge amount of what have been formative experiences happened to me outside of school. What's more a good deal of these were experiences that enabled me to access what they offered me in the state school and university system from 1949 to 1969 - and indeed for what I did later for an MA and a Ph.D. Of course, in one sense I was very privileged, not by the standards of wealth particularly but both my parents were teachers. Actually, they were more than teachers - they were two people almost fanatically attached to the idea that life was a teacher and that they could in the broadest sense of the word teach about life wherever they were, whenever they were awake! (yes, it was quite a burden sometimes!)

But are there more universal ways in which we can think of out-of-school as 'education'? There are certainly plenty of facilities that are about learning new stuff, from museums to football stadiums to 'Go Ape' climbing experiences to libraries and much more.  Could there be a way, in which the relationship between formal school learning and informal out-of-school learning could be made into some kind of proper set-up? Perhaps some schools do this. Public (ie private !) boarding schools pride themselves on this being built into the virtues of the system: there are lessons, there is homework time (prep) and there are activities that school students can do, laid on by the school for the students to choose and attend (I gather!). Again, writing my memoir, I reminded myself just how powerful my out-of-school interests were for building up a sense of what mattered to me and much of it 'competed' with the in-school stuff in terms of me asking myself, which is more valuable? (In one area, this has often nagged at me: literature. Was there any way that any teacher or anyone else could tell me that the lyrics of Bob Dylan were less valuable than the poems I was being taught in school? )

If we say, 'when Education?' again, we are stuck mostly with school and university. I've been very lucky to have been able to afford to do an MA and a Ph.D., so though that's quite a privileged idea of what 'further education' is, I will never ever underestimate the value and power of studying again when you're in your forties or fifties, say. Or indeed at any time! Surely, in an ideal society that wants to advance has to think of its citizens going on inquiring, acquiring knowledge and skills, exploring fields of interest as far as it's possible to go? Isn't this desirable both at an individual and social level. Ultimately the 'good' of this will filter through in terms of the total 'value' of a society. To put this in place needs us to think of how we can link education 4-18 with every possible further education institution...and how to make it easier for people to opt into such places, one day a week, or short courses, or however. 

If we ask, why education?, we come up against powerful orthodoxies, such as: education is for the whole person, every aspect of our being can and should be developed by education and who's to say from within education why one part of one's existence is more important an another; get the whole child right - emotional, physical, intellectual and that child will turn into an adult who can access what's out there at the level appropriate to that adult. This 'holistic' view pre-supposes that there is some kind of 'core' to our being and that knowledge and learning happens when the core is in a good state. Some people put that the other way round: acquire the knowledge, that'll give you the basis for problem-solving and the sense of well-being and happiness will flow from that. 

Another view says that the only thing that counts is the marketability of the student at 16, 18 or on leaving college, and education should focus entirely and single-mindedly on giving the child and school student marketability. This means tailoring the curriculum and schooling (often seen as a one-off chance) to gearing the child and school student up with marketable skills and knowledge. Anything that looks irrelevant or incidental to this should be got rid of, or discouraged. 

There are many other views or combinations of these and we're in the  midst of the imposition of one particular orthodoxy: that worth in all respects (self-worth, worth to society etc) is acquired through the acquisition of knowledge and that knowledge is identified as being 'the best that has been said and written'...and that has been identified as 'classical' or 'traditional' knowledge ....which (surprising to me) is apparently without cultural bias. Apparently, it is just simply the 'best' and, it's argued, this 'best' stuff has to be taught to everyone so that in particular the 'disadvantaged' get the same stuff as the toffs get , as that is the only way to create 'equality of opportunity' and 'social mobility'. 

My view of this is that even if it's true, this teaching of classic and traditional knowledge goes on in a context - all teaching goes on in a context! - and that this context is just as important as the knowledge itself. The main context in England at this moment is a school system skewed as never before to testing and exams. This has several effects: it determines the shape and quality of the knowledge being passed on - ie it has to come in exam-question chunks. It creates knowledge as being purely and simply of a right/wrong nature. This is no more apparent than in the field of language. Language is a hugely diverse and changing thing - as you might expect, because it is a form of human behaviour. The grammar being taught at primary school at the moment, treats language as a set of acts which must conform to a set of rules, and that parts and functions of language can be named and labelled as incontrovertibly correct. Language isn't like that at all, as it is used in wide range of ways, for very different purposes and changes all the time. The model of treating as right/wrong was devised purely in order to make it fit the testing system. As a result, that particular discipline or form of knowledge is distorted by the testing system and 'wrong knowledge' is dispensed, (e.g. examiners insisting that 'The sun shines bright' is 'wrong' and only 'The sun shines brightly' is 'right'. ( see David Crystal for this particular example.)

The other major effect stemming from context, is that of selection, 'setting' and streaming. In short, the knowledge curriculum is 'hired' to enable the system to constantly sort the school population into categories. This is not, as is claimed, in order to help the low-attaining children and students 'do better' but turns out to be a self-fulfilling prophesy in confirming students in categories - no matter whether they're called e.g. Squirrels Table and Kestrels Table  or whether it's sorting into  'sets', 'streams' or different kinds of schools. Quite clearly, some kinds of school activity are not so easy for using as means to do this kind of selection - let's think, say, of most kinds of shared activity in pairs or bigger groups. I've heard this being called 'confusing' precisely because the children in a pair or group can't be 'disentangled' and given separate grades. But is paired work or group work bad in some way? Aren't there virtues in children learning how to learn together - at least sometimes? 

Another effect linked to this is the proposition that this kind of knowledge curriculum (now locked into the exam-test regime) is best delivered through a particular mode of teaching. At which point, we come to 'Education how?' Having established education as being about the transmission of knowledge to the individual in ways that can be tested in right/wrong exam questions, then it's argued that the kind of knowledge transmission that is best suited to this (though it's usually described as objectively the best way in all conditions) is direct instruction. Various people have laid this out in terms of room arrangement, percentage of time in which the teacher passes on knowledge, to what extent the teacher asks questions, how it is that each child or school student gets to answer those questions (e.g. as individuals raising their hands), the use of positive and negative reinforcement techniques - and so on.  What should be minimised by this 'how', it's argued,  are exploratory, investigatory and discovery methods. It's claimed that these methods disadvantage the disadvantaged because they don't have the cultural capital to engage with those methods, and are quickly confused or resign themselves to not being much good at it. What they need, it's claimed,  is constant, clear, directive teaching which says what's right, what's wrong, and does its best to get the facts over. 

Being a parent has the advantage of seeing how this works out away from school. You get to see the kind of homework your child has that is required to back up this shift to more knowledge, taught 'directly' and whether your children do in fact 'get' it;  what it feels like when they don't, and how a constant regime of practice testing, setting pans out. What happens, as I've suggested, is that the great slabs of knowledge are yoked to a constant background buzz of grading, with spikes of panic when the grading is part of high-stakes testing and/or teacher anxiety to do with inspections and the like. This comes to light in particular on parents' evenings when you, as a parent, sit down in front of a teacher (who I am 100% in sympathy with here, as it's not their 'fault', they didn't create this system) who finds your child's name on a register, runs their finger along a set of grades, reads them out, noting 'dips' and 'improvements' and says to you and your child, what needs to be done to avoid the 'dips'. The child is, then reduced, to data. The data define the child. The child becomes data. The sum worth and purpose of education in that moment is the data. (In fact, it is the teacher's worth and the school's worth too, because the sum of the data is supposedly the sum worth of that teacher to enable the sum of children to get the 'right' grades that sum of children is worth (according to a base line of some sort), and the sum worth of that school to have teachers who can enable the students to collect data at the right level. )

This is just about as far removed from the 'whole child' view of education as it is possible to be. Ironically, at the very moment the private schools put in their mission statements and publicity handouts how proud they are to education the whole child and the whole child's whole personality (etc etc),  the public sector is forced more and more into this marketable-unit kind of education. 

So what is education for? Again, this can't really be asked free of the context in which we find ourselves. Or contexts (plural). One key context is the state of flux in society. We really don't know what society will look like in 10 or 20 years time when today's school pupils will be going off to work - if there is work. We don't know what 'work' will look like for the mass of people. We don't know how those people who are in work that is not fulfilling to the mind or body, will spend their leisure time.  At the core of this is an argument about technology and whether those who own and control  business, will so invest in technology as to remove millions of people from the workplace. The main obstacle for them to do this with a free hand is that the effect of removing millions of people from the workplace, removes millions of people from their wages, which in turn removes them from having the means to buy the products being made by the new technology! 

Meanwhile, there are huge unknowns and insecurities in relation to the UK's relationship to the world. My own view of the argument about Leave or Remain is that these are two competing arguments about how to insure that wages in Britain are kept low. With yet more labyrinthine arguments appearing daily about this or that customs union and single market, the argument seems to me to be even more about how to keep wages low, in order to 'compete for investment'. So, step back for a moment - the great knowledge curriculum, yoked as it is to a hyper-selective, exam-based system, might possibly be useful in a global, macro sense for the country to guarantee that there is a fixed, group at the bottom that never managed to get hold of all that great knowledge, and found over and over again that their test-exam failing (linked to sets, streams and different kinds of schools), leaves them as ideal candidates for those low-paid, unskilled jobs that even technology can't quite get rid of (minding the production line that is packing the products in the huge internet retail depots etc). 

So, we don't really know what world the students are going into, other than that under the present dispensation, a tiny, tiny minority own and control that world. Of course one argument is that school should enable anyone to join that tiny, tiny elite but I can see a problem here: is it really desirable to think of school as a system that is geared up for one or two people to join the elite and for everyone else to fail at doing that? There is an awkward egalitarianism in education and amongst teachers that runs totally against this view of schooling! No matter what is imposed from those who run education, virtually every teacher I've ever met, is trying to do the best for all their pupils. (Of course, the way round this is for our schools to be even more rigidly selective than at present so that the 'doing the best of all their pupils' can be corrupted. In effect, teachers in elite schools do their best for their pupils to be in the elite and the rest do the best they can. It might be argued that the private school system does this anyway, along with a few of the elite grammar schools. Sorted!)

So what are we left with in terms of that question, what is it for? I think it is right to hang on to the idea of the 'whole child', the whole student, no matter how data-driven, test-driven the system is. Our humanity is at stake. We all know that there are activities like putting on a play, running a sports day, producing a magazine and hundreds of others that are outside of this data and testing loop, where we see pupils flourish, find value for themselves, acquire skills and knowledge, learn how to co-operate, work to deadlines that correspond to the kinds of deadlines you meet outside of school, and so on. None of this is trivial. It's deadly serious, no matter how unvalued or undervalued it is by the system. 

It also enables us to get a glimpse of the way things could be - that is, if the balance between formal learning, experimental learning, activities, projects, group work was better. It would also contain within it flexibilities about whatever it is the world is going to hit us with.   

Friday, 11 May 2018

Gérard Genette - a mini-obituary

The great narratologist, Gérard Genette has died. He wrote about how stories, novels, fictions of all kinds are put together or 'told'. He drew attention to the 'intertextual' origins of genre, style, type of fictions and within the fictions he looked at how stories are narrated, how those narrations change and he looked at how fictions deal with time, in a constantly changing way, even as we think we are looking at a 'now'. 

I've drawn on Genette's work in my booklets 'Why Read? Why Write?', 'Writing for Pleasure' and 'Poems and Stories for Primary and Lower Secondary Schools'.

People are very easily put off by 'theory' and feel that it is too abstract and too complicated for every day use. I've tried to break down some of the ideas of narratology and intertextuality in ways that can be used by teachers in primary and secondary schools. My main reason for doing that is not only are these great ways for students to see how the subtle ways in which stories are 'told' (narrated) affects us but that when explained they are great tools for creating new stories, as with say, experimenting with how we narrate, how we 'borrow' from previous stories (intertextuality) and how we can play with time in our writing, creating 'thick' sense of time by moving to and from showing us past and 'continuous' events. 

I hope that someone will do a thorough obituary of Genette. I read his book 'Palimpsestes' when I was doing my Ph.D. and it was a great help. 

Monday, 16 April 2018

The great linguist, M.A.K. Halliday has died.

The great linguist, M.A.K. Halliday has died. His work used to be central to the way secondary English teachers treated language as 'language in use', with an emphasis on how language is part of social existence. Some of it got mis-used (I would argue) by the National Literacy Strategy as 'genre' work, though I'm not against a light-handed use of genre as a way of doing writing in schools. He taught my father linguistics, (as I wrote about jokily in 'So They Call You Pisher!' ) and - to put it crudely - fled the UK, once he realised that the government weren't interested in rational discussion of linguistics as a way of talking about language in schools.

I hope there will be long and thoughtful obituaries to him. We still have much to learn from his work.

Infected with superiority

People who've led lives growing up in suburbs, in comfortable homes, going to schools with glorious playing fields, playing in orchestras, playing in teams, find themselves in power in the parliament of the UK, equipped as it is with rockets and bombs, with a history of strutting across huge areas of the earth's surface, ruling over millions, still talking of 'spheres of influence' and 'our strategic interests', acting as if it is a right and a duty to decide what is or is not a humanitarian crisis, what is or is not the humanitarian crisis that it has to 'respond to', what is or is not the legitimate target to fire rockets and bombs at...and journalists and politicians lower down the food chain, sit and debate the finer points of this as if, yes, the UK does have some special historical valid role to act as one of the world's police, not seeing how deeply corrupting this is, of the country, of them, of us, how infected they are with this sense of superiority over billions of other people...when I watch them on TV talking it's as if this superiority is in their voices, in their eyes, seeped into their skin, like it's so deep in them that we can't actually see it, so we listen to them and watch them as if it's something right and proper and decent when in truth we now it's part of a brutal system of maintaining power and control over regions of the globe and over millions of people, and nothing whatsoever to do with - as they claim - poor, suffering people. Poor, suffering people - millions of whom they make poor and make suffer elsewhere....