Friday 20 January 2012

How to control children's minds

[I should have prefaced this with a disclaimer:  what follows is not to blame teachers one jot or iota. The system in England forces many schools to adopt what is in effect a SATs course. I've heard headteachers explain to me how much pressure they've been under to do this. Even so, there are some schools and some teachers who do manage to resist that pressure. So, of course I'm not blaming them either! Finally, what follows is specifically about this moment in the year, in the lead-up to SATs in England. Disclaimer over.]

For people who like to control children's minds, the great advantage of the SATs that Year 6 children face in England is that for several months these tests (and the preparation for them) prevent children from putting together significant chunks of extended prose, stop them having to pay any close attention to words in any metaphorical or playful way, inhibit them from  using language to express dilemmas and problems, cut them off from the chance to explore through language how a person might get out of dilemmas and problems; to explore through language ideas, possibilities, transformations, changes; or to express through language doubt, speculation, ambiguity, uncertainty.

In place of these uses and functions of language, are closed-ended questions which revolve endlessly around features of language which are supposedly  'in' a passage of writing. The writing that children are required to do is prove that they have spotted what's 'in' the passage, and it's of a highly formulaic kind - specific right-or-wrong answers to 'why', 'what', 'when', 'how', 'where'. Has anyone ever shown or proved that making children do this sort of thing achieves anything?

In actual fact, readers produce their meanings 'outside' of the text. The reader produces meanings in some kind of inter-relation with the text. Some part of this process is dependent on some basic shared, learned interpretations of the squiggles on the page. However, it's very easy to exaggerate the degree to which these interpretations are shared and fixed (as it were, before the reader starts to read) and very easy to ignore how the reader brings his or knowledge of texts and his or her knowledge of life in the reading moment. In order to turn writing into markable chunks of comprehension, a discourse of examination-ese has had to be invented which implies that all meaning is 'in' the text, the examiner knows what this meaning is because it pre-exists that moment of reading, and it's the job of the candidate to arrive at the same conclusion as the examiner ie to discover what's in the examiner's mind. Only then will the candidate get the marks, the measurable quantification of response to writing. It's the accountancy principle of reading - ideal for a capitalist society, because it puts a price on everything.

A subject largely ignored at all levels of education is the exploration of how readers' interpretations of texts are socially constructed. A reader isn't a free-floating asteroid. He or she is a social being who uses texts to navigate life, who has spent the whole of his or her life responding to texts. These texts aren't free-floating asteroids either. They come out of institutions, they are marked with purpose and intention. In a complicated formulation, this has been called 'the social construction of intertextuality'. No matter how complicated that sounds, there is no reason why children and school students can't explore this in many interesting ways: language maps of themselves investigating why they say this or that, where and how they acquired this or that way of speaking; examinations of the texts of their pasts in terms of where they come from, what purpose they might have, and why they were given them, investigations of the texts around them in terms of their origin and apparent intention...and so on.

If I want to make myself distressed though, all I need to do is focus on the kind of writing that English Year 6 children are asked to write, re-write and re-write again and again and again in the run-up to the SATs test. As a body of writing, it represents the removal of all danger, excitement, desire, problem, dilemma, problem-solving or subversion. It is in effect a censorship of the brain.

But even this over-simplifies. I always say to anyone (not only children) that the great thing about writing poems or stories or life-writing or even accounts of what you've done (so-called 'recounts') is that the potential in that moment of writing is discovery. However, if you do too much pre-structuring, pre-note-making, pre-planning, you miss one of the great achievements of the invention of writing which is to enable the writer to do the discovering as you write, in the process of writing. It's as if the pen (or keyboard) is a probe or a spade (see Seamus Heaney's poem on this) or a fork turning the texts and experiences over as you produce the words on the page (or as M.A.K. Halliday would put it, 'as you produce the wording').

In the name of teaching people how to write, we have invented processes in education which prevent, hinder and inhibit these acts of discovery - particularly as the children and students approach the time for testing. The schools are under immense pressure to do this because it's this way, they're told, the children will do better in the tests. So of course they do it. It can even be 'proved' that it's a form of entitlement.

In practical terms with Year 6 children in England, just at the moment when their level of maturation and understanding and experience offers them the possibility of writing long projects, stories, novels, collections of poems, autobiographies, biographies, they are squeezed into writing short, segments of closed-ended answers to questions that examiners already know the answers to.

I know this doesn't last forever, I know that most schools in England treat the post-SATs months as a fantastic opportunity for creative work of many different kinds. Let's just say that for many teachers and children, we're in hold-your-nose-till-mid-May time.

ps in the above I keep using the words 'investigate' 'explore' 'discover'. Wouldn't education be brilliant if every day at school was a day when you investigated, explored and discovered? I would add in 'play' and 'co-operate'. Yes, investigate, discover, play, co-operate. If  you were in school for a day where you didn't do any investigating, discovering, playing or co-operating, you could summon the monsters of the deep to eat Michael Gove. Or something.