Friday, 15 June 2012

Four false models in one Primary English Curriculum.

This is summary of why I think the Draft Primary English Curriculum is bad and wrong.

It's based on 4 false models.

1. It is itself a false model of professional training. It's a top-down set of instructions, commanding teachers to run through a particular curriculum backed up, as we now know, by testing. There is no evidence to show that top-down instructions from governments raise teaching standards. This is a vital point to make and one which most press responses completely miss. Haven't they noticed that we've had over 20 years of these heavy-handed curriculum instructions and no evidence to show that it helps the quality of teaching and learning. I believe that the anonymity of the Draft is part of this false model ie that knowing where a particular set of ideas comes from doesn't matter for how professionals learn Teaching is a human activity and teachers shouldn't be treated as if they are simply assembling a flat pack table.

As it happens, one of the world's key experts on what does raise the quality of teaching and learning saw on the Expert Panel which advised the government on how to proceed. Dylan Wiliam has combed the research and done plenty of his own in order to see what actually does work, as summarised in the booklet of his inaugural lecture at the Institute of Education. It's available from the IoE and/or Amazon. I plead with anyone really interested in what improves the quality of teaching and learning to get that booklet.  'Assessment for learning: why, what and how' (1 see below)

2. The Draft is a false model of how learning happens. Andrew Pollard, another member of the Expert Panel put it like this: 'it implies that children learn 'first this, then that'. Actually, people learn in a variety of different ways, and for that you need flexibility - for teachers to pick up on that and vary things accordingly.'

This is profoundly important. The whole last period in education has been based on a false model that is failing many children. It is rigidly 'linear': you learn A, then B, then C. (In fact, more often than not, it's been more about teaching A, then B, then C - without being able to take stock and find out if children were really learning anything.

3. The Draft is a false model of what is 'English' .If  you were a Martian arriving in London and asked this document 'What is English in education?', the document would show you that English in education is primarily  about language. It's true that we glimpse references to 'fiction' and indeed 'reading for pleasure' but these are fleeting. All the energy and detail of the Draft is on language. In fact 'English in education' has been and can be many things. Some people have always believed that it should be 'language and literature', some that it should be about multi-media uses and expressions of language, some people believe that it should be about 'many literacies'.Some people believe that 'narrative' (in its multiple forms) should be a dominant ingredient in the mix. I could put up arguments for any of these overlapping views. Very few people - teachers, advisers, academics - think that it should be as narrow-based as this Draft suggests. This is a highly partisan and misleading view. And yet it's the one that has prevailed here.

Even more seriously, it is one that is going to be policed by a regime of testing. This is where the real bite happens. This is where debate about what might or could be in the curriculum melts away and teachers are forced by the system to teach to the test. It is utterly disingenuous of governments, Ofsted (as in its report 'Moving English Forward')  or anyone else to pretend that teaching to the test is an unfortunate by-product of testing, and (incredibly and insultingly) an example of 'bad' teaching.

4. The Draft is a false model of language. Language, as presented here, is a set of procedures starting at one point and arriving at another, through sounds, letters, words, sentences, paragraphs while various 'tools' are injected: full stops, commas, apostrophes and the terminology of 'grammar' which I have written about on previous blogs.  I can't say this more forcefully: I think this is quite wrong.

Language is a social practice covering virtually all human activity. It is around us, in us, acting as the means by which we carry out all our activities, including our thinking. Children are not without it, the worlds they live in are not without it. This Draft, like many before it, starts from a set of items and texts of language that do not belong either with the children's own language or the language around them. Instead it is a constant flow of 'other stuff'  that the children will have to be instructed in, whilst ignoring a) what the children know, b) what most of the children see, read and hear around them in the daily lives c) what the children reflect on this d)what the children might discover if given a chance to investigate their own language, the language they see around them, and indeed the language that is put in front of them that they had not previously encountered.

So, here is one example. At the core of this Draft's language policy is 'the sentence'. It's almost as if the whole of education in 'English' is about producing the perfect sentence and/or the sequence of perfect sentences. What's more, the sole means by which children will arrive at producing this perfect sentence is according to the principles in the draft, using punctuation, spelling and grammar.

Again, where is the evidence that coherent and good writing is produced solely or mainly in this way? Or put another way, is there evidence to suggest that good writing will come about through 'activity' (eg going on trips, making things, doing things), reflection and talk. (Irony here: if you look at the document produced by the Expert Panel in December 2011, it quite explicitly put 'oracy' at the heart of primary education. It couldn't have been emphasised more. This has disappeared from the Draft. Why?

Where is the evidence that good writing comes about from ignoring children's own language, ignoring the possibilities of children 'collecting' language themselves from the people they know, the songs and rhymes and talk they hear, the language they investigate in any of the 'texts' they might bring to school, find, look for or are given?

So, returning to the matter of the sentence as the holy grail of language teaching of primary children, how interesting that we live in a time where the sentence has become less and less powerful. Wherever children find themselves they are surrounded by non-sentences! Food packaging, adverts, logos, clothing, announcements, song and film titles, slogans, magazine listings, internet wording. For an experiment, spend a day looking at how much written material we come across in a day that is not in sentences. Consider for a moment how many livelihoods are sustained by people trying to write cleverly or interestingly in non-sentences? Consider how much time schools spend considering what are these non-sentences? How are we affected by them? On the side of a new bus in London, I read 'Another red bus going green for London'

No full stop, no finite verb but a highly effective piece of writing, witty and pointed, doing its job in its context. Children in London will see this sign hundreds of times. Working to the model of the Draft, there is no scope for considering such a text other than to identify it as wrong. In fact, by putting the text up on twitter, I discovered that linguists themselves couldn't agree on how to describe it in grammatical terms. In other words, the research base is lagging behind the human practice - a perfect chance for children and teachers to investigate, discover and produce their own new purpose-built terminology.

So, 4 false models in one document, destined at the moment to be the food fed to teachers to feed to children so that they can do tests in what I'm saying are false forms of knowledge and practice.