Tuesday, March 24, 2009

What's Wrong With Our Schools?

Judging by the chorus of criticism our schools are in a parlous state. The picture is one of classroom mayhem and chaos. But it’s not so. Up and down the country, the majority of students at all levels get on with their learning quite satisfactorily. Most parents seem content with their local school. Some are delighted. A few have grounds for concern. The system has checks and balances to deal with such concerns but they are rather slow to kick in.

Students grumble, but then they always have. Teaching is harder than when I started in 1960. Now, information technology offers alternative learning. Kids tell me ‘school’s dull’. Cleaning your teeth is dull. Learning maths is hard but I’ve never thought of it as dull. Teachers tell me that many students find step by step learning more difficult than formerly. The average attention span appears to have got shorter. Schools have to compete with the hoo-hah of television, texting and play-station. Further, they are being given an increasing socialising role

One problem is: how to define a good teacher? In 1966 I was in my first year as Head of English in a new secondary school. One of my students passed School Certificate English with 97%. My reputation was made. She was a brilliant student, with a high IQ, and parents devoted to reading and debate. The co-relation between the IQ test and School Certificate English was 89%. She was home and hosed for that particular exam long before she appeared in my classroom. In terms of value addition my teaching had done more for many of her peers.

This is a dangerous argument. You might say it makes the teacher redundant. No! The role has changed, is changing and will continue to change. Teaching is a complex task. Research means we now know much more about learning. The old pour-in-the- information model is being replaced by a more facilitative role. As students progress through the system the teacher increasingly becomes a mentor. My primary school maths was a series of drills. We worked silently and on our own. Today’s youngsters play with shapes as they talk and work in groups.

Since I went to school the worlds of banking, communication, farming, shopping and entertainment have radically changed. Schools cannot remain in a separate time warp. They also change and adapt. Which is why education is fair game for the critics. Everyone has been through the system. We know what we did and we believe we know how we learnt. Nostalgia adds a rosy glow.

I am asked, “Why bring in new-fangled ideas like NCEA?” When I was young they made similar comments about the abolition of proficiency –whereby you couldn’t go to secondary school until you reached a certain standard. There was criticism of the new-fangled School Certificate - no holy cow then.

So I say, let’s praise what is working well and seek to improve what should be working better. There will be mistakes. The education establishment will sometimes stuff things up. We all do. That is in the nature of being human. And that’s how we learn.

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