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Friday, September 14, 2007

Rip Up the Curriculum!

Children's Laureate, Michael Rosen, on what's wrong with education (spot on, IMO):
“The Government thinks it terribly important that you set up these weird incentive schemes in classes, so you get ticks, smiley faces and certificates. This is about competitive stigmatising. They think it’s rewarding the children; in fact, it ends up punishing most of them.”

He is angry at the rigorous testing regime which has reduced his passion, literature, to a series of tick-box exercises. Take SATs, the exams now given to every child aged 7 and again at 11, forcing children to think like Gradgrind, solely about facts.

“If you look at the questions they ask about a story, they are all obsessed with telling the events of the story in the right order, understanding the chronology, logic and facts.

“This is why you write up scientific experiments, but it isn’t why you tell stories. They have completely misunderstood the purpose of narrative. We tell stories to engage people’s feelings . . . Unless you do that, there really isn’t much point. You might just as well do reports, you might just as well do the stuff that you do when you talk about the germination of plants or the metamorphosis of caterpillars.”

As the children get older, many schools say they don’t have time to read “whole” books.

“What is the point if you never learn about outcome? The reason why you read novels or stories is in great part because you want to see whether the baddie gets their comeuppance, whether the girl gets their boy, why their dad lied to them. It’s crucial to it.

“If all you do is just look at a page and then answer five questions about adjectives and clauses or whatever, it denies what any of us are in the business for. Any writer, ever, from Homer onwards.”

This “completely misleads teachers and children, and from them parents, that the way we respond to stories is about facts”. In doing so, it “curtails the emotional response”.

At the same time – and Rosen finds this a piquant absurdity – government ministers are calling for emotional literacy, or happiness lessons. Nothing to do with our children’s happiness, he said, only that of adults.

“All anxieties about children and youth are not about them at all, it’s about our anxieties about our future as adults,” he said.

“We’re busy screwing up and so we project all that on to children saying, ‘My God, the little beasts don’t say please any more’. ”

If you let Rosen talk, he quite rapidly takes an idea and runs away with it, expanding into radical reform of education, scrapping “backward” faith schools, rethinking the “19th-century” curriculum, letting children decide what they want to learn. It’s imaginative and possibly hopelessly left-wing.

Cosy it is not, but it acknowledges the maverick side of children that longs for freedom, not restraint – that is, the “Eddie” in us all.

“There is a yearning from adults that children just behave. If you summed up the total body of children’s books since they were invented about 400 years ago in two words, it [would be] ‘Be nice’.”

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