Tuesday, 27 December 2011

The Ten Commandments of Lazy Education Journalism


I'm amazed Superman didn't chin her.
Like Siddhartha Gautama beneath the Bodhi tree, I have sat still long enough in the festive post-prandial hibernation of the Christ’s Mass to obtain wisdom. I have seen the patterns, mine eyes have seen the glory...of education journalism. There is an enormous number of excellent edu-writers; there are also some seasonal space-fillers that crop up every week or so, clearly putting beans on the table. So, here is wisdom; here are the sacred templates. HERE are the great shibboleths of the broadsheets, tabloids and streaming online content providers. Know these rituals, and understand.

1. CHILDREN FAILED BY SCHOOLS, REPORT SAYS. 

This is my favourite. Failed. Every week we’ve failed some subset of the school population, normally because a statistician has drawn a circle around a scatter graph cluster of data points and decreed that they are somehow oppressed. The problem with this perpetual non-logic is that it rests on the knuckle-headed assumptions that everyone can succeed equally. Well, I have news for you, philosophy fans: if you build a mountain you get a valley. As Syndrome said in Pixar’s meisterstűck The Incredibles, ‘If everyone’s special then no one is.’ 

It also rests on the axiom that if someone doesn’t do very well then it must be someone else’s fault. Which is great if you believe that responsibility doesn’t exist, and we have no free will. At what point do we say, ‘No, YOU didn’t try hard enough’? I love teaching children; I want them all to do well. Despite my heart-prayer for this to be so, some won’t. You can give your heart only to find they left it on the desk next to some chewing gum. Who failed who?

2. NEW LEGISLATION SLIGHTLY ADVANTAGES ONE CATEGORY OF CHILD; OTHER CATEGORIES SLIGHTLY DISADVANTAGED

'It's spelled B-R-A-I-N G-Y-M...'
I learned this from a comic book: everything is connected. If you hold a hand out to pull a castaway onto the lifeboat, the boat shifts. Water your plants and you drown a mole, that kind of thing. No man- or demographic- is an island. I’m vaguely aware that the universe is finite and so are our resources. So whenever anything- and I mean anything- is decided in education, then the weight on the seesaw changes. This apparently terrifies some people.

3. MINISTER PROMISES NEW FUNDING FOR INITIATIVE

This is the feelgood version of the story. There might be some opposition grumbles in paragraph ten (‘Why didn’t they do this sooner?/ This isn’t far enough’ etc) but usually it’s trumpeted as hard as the press office can tweet and ingratiate. But just wait a bit and you get....

4. MINISTER PROMISES THAT INITIATIVES SECURE DESPITE ROUNDS OF CUTS

This is Act Two: the project starts to hit the buffers. Money is usually the Kryptonite. Eventually the lovers part, a message is lost, and we fall into the tragedy of Act Three....

5. NEW MINISTER DEFENDS DECISION TO AXE DEPARTING MINISTER’S INITIATIVE

Ministers have a shelf life of about fourteen months before they get palmed off to the Department of Silly Walks. Now, far be it from me to imply that this might not be long enough for any new initiative to bed in and take effect, but...it isn’t. And you think the new minister in town wants to run with his predecessor’s train set? Of course not. He has toys of his own, and a reputation to create. He's there for about ten minutes before he's like GUYS GUYS YOU SHOULD TOTALLY SEE THIS AWESOME NEW THING THAT I AM GOING TO DO TO SAVE EDUCATION. YOU SHOULD TOTALLY ALL DO THIS FROM NOW ON.

In your f*cking DREAMS, Olsen.
6. NEW STUDY BY ACADEMIC EXPERTS CLAIMS SOMETHING TOTALLY F*CKING OBVIOUS

‘Children learn better when nobody has a gun.’ ‘Kids who stay up late al night playing Skyrim are tired the next day.’ ‘Some kids are a bit bored in lessons.’ That sort of thing.

7. NEW STUDY BY ACADEMIC EXPERTS CLAIMS SOMETHING F*CKING RIDICULOUS

This is the counterpoint to (7), above, and proves George Orwell’s possibly misquoted aphorism that, ‘Some ideas are so stupid only an academic could believe them.’ Examples include..well, there are too many to do more than scratch the surface, and besides, you probably battle with them every day yourself. ‘Multiple Intelligences’ is one. Group Work as the Holy Grail of learning. Student interviewers.  Green ink for marking. Every week a fresh pile of shit steaming and gleaming, and dispensed like stone tablets from the Mountain Top. And more, always more, coming to a classroom near you.

I’m writing a book about this, so if you want to read more, wait nine months and buy a copy. Whattya think dis is, a LIBRARY?
'Anyone here been inspected and speaks English?'

8. SURVEY CONDUCTED BY PEOPLE SELLING THINGS CLAIM CHILDREN LEARN BETTER IF YOU BUY THEIR STUFF

This is a great space filler. Whenever things get a bit quiet, out come the press releases and off goes the journalistic integrity switch. Isn’t it nice that some journalists help out people who want to flog you stuff, or who have gone to the bother of commissioning surveys that prove what they already want you to believe? God, PR research makes me want to stick my fingers down my throat. How do they sleep? (‘On a bed of money’ sayeth Don Draper)

9. THE KNOWLEDGE ECONOMY IS VERY IMPORTANT

Blah blah information, blah blah 21st century learners, blah blah changing economy, PISA, falling behind Madagascar, blah blah blah something about computers. Will this do?

10. SCHOOLS BLAMED FOR SOMETHING WRONG IN SOCIETY: SOMETHING TO BE TAUGHT IN SCHOOL TO FIX PROBLEM

See: the riots; poor diet; illiteracy; crime; not knowing who Henry V was; rudeness on tubes; low voter turnout; everything else. I love these kinds of stories. They imply that schools are somehow external to society, the launch pads for children entering our Brave World. Which is odd because last time I looked schools were entirely IN society, part of it and perfectly integrated. If I were to think of an institution that exists outside of the real world, I’d probably be looking at the Mir Space station. Or a Montessori school! Even then.

Of course schools have a part to play in societal progress. But only an idiot would think that the way to improve voter turnout was to design the unlovely, unloved subject Citizenship. Perhaps if politicians didn’t sicken most people’s entrails quite so much we might be more inclined to pop an X in the box from time to time...


I’m sure I’ve missed a few hundred memes here. Feel free to leave your own suggestions....

21 comments:

  1. Interesting very interesting you seem very disenfranchised by government, this could be a result of working for them for years or just that all they do is not good enough either way they dont do it for you do they. I am a school governor so find this insight interesting I have loads to learn about education and think you could prove very useful in that respect dont you?

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  2. I love it all, although doesn't saying "some people are better at stuff than others" then get a bit eroded by calling the theory of multiple intelligences (note: not how Head teachers, LAs & Ministers implement this theory. The actual theory. That some people are better at stuff than others & we should recognise that) stupid?

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  3. Point 9 - made me nearly widdle myself laughing, bang on!

    Lots of good points, my view - Ministers create false conflict in education to gain votes, journalists create it to sell papers etc and teachers get horribly battered in the middle. Shameful stuff that strangles what should be a rigorous and mutually supportive sharing of best practice between quality researchers, practitioners and teachers across education. Much of, government, newspapers and hideous edu-businesses should butt the hell out.

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  4. Excellent, as ever. And to be clear to a commenter above, "some people are better at stuff than others" is not the same as the "theory" of multiple intelligences. Oh, and it is not an actual theory by the scientific definition of the word.

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  5. You forgot the 'let's do this great new initiative' that has already been done numerous times, that good teachers still do & that already works. Phonics for instance...

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  6. SCHOOLS TO BE FREED FROM LOCAL AUTHORITY CONTROL

    This one has been regurgitated almost every year (or more) for as long as I can remember. I've just turned 47 so either the degree of local authority control in this highly decentralised country was so awesome that it's taking decades to break, or the Department of Education is so incompetent that it can't achieve what most other departments in central government can do in one parliamentary sitting, or it's just plain bollocks to fill space?

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  7. 'When you build a mountain you create a valley' love it, will use it!

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  8. How about

    EXAMS WERE HARDER IN MY DAY (usually appears mid August)
    WE SHOULD PAY TEACHERS MORE (but not from my taxes)

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  9. I think you'll find that if you substitute the word "children" with "Patients" and the word "school for hospital" that the list gains ten new uses! Goodness, that makes you a health correspondent too!

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  10. Any article explaining that 'TEACHERS WANT TO...' or 'TEACHERS ARE...' or 'TEACHERS DEMAND RIGHT TO...' because of course we all think the same and behave in the same way about every issue.

    The media (sorry, some of the media!) love to generalise about us, honestly young journalists these days, they don't do any critical thinking, mind you they've been failed by the schools...

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  11. To be fair (not that I see any reason to be), many of these stories aren't so much Lazy Journalists as Stupid Politicians. OK, that last phrase is tautological, but you know what I mean. I've taught since 1975, with about four years off to have kids, and during that time have seen countless wonderful new initiatives: they came, we saw, they didn't conquer. Sometimes, as one of your correspondents observes, they're on a merry-go-round and disappear/reappear at roughly predictable intervals under another name. But they all have one thing in common: they're totally pointless, either because they're what all halfway-good teachers are already doing, or because they're something that no teacher should waste time doing.

    The big problem now, of course, is that OFSTED have become Iniative Enforcers, so one can't get away so easily with just ignoring the Initiatives and continuing to teach sensibly. (And some of these initiatives, if followed au pied de la lettre, are totally mad: differentiation, for instance, where one's supposed to be teaching every individual student something perfectly designed for their own target. (Just before Christmas, the SLT member responsible for ensuring that we teach in the approved fashion* circulated a beautifully-produced document full of great differentiation ideas, such as 'Write different tasks on cards and place them under the seats of each student for them to pick up when they come into the room.' (What happens if Thicko decides to sit in Brainy's seat for once? And when does one find time to rush round comparing seating plans to cards between the time the bell goes and the time the little darlings enter the room? And - but you get the idea.)

    Oh well. Back to A2 coursework marking. Don't you love those long holidays when we can just chill out?

    *Not that I blame her - it's part of her job specification. Sigh.

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  12. @ everyone Thank you for your feedback. Your views are very important to us. Apart from the first one, which I didn't understand.

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  13. What about e-learning (or indeed any other new technology)? That will revolutionise everything won't it? Education will be transformed and will be completely different thanks to the new wired generation. Oh, except it won't.

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  14. Let's face it, there are a lot of good teachers in our schools, but there are also a lot of bad teachers. We need to get better about weeding the bad ones out. They are going to harm countless children's futures and probably cause some anti social behaviour problems in the future. In the private sector, we are callous about doing formal 360 feedback applying the "Bell curve" to the results, and GETTING RID of the bottom 10%, but at the same time REWARDING the 20% of top performers and giving them new and expanded opportunities. There is no reason why this principal can't be applied to Education. I this country we tolerate the good teachers get worn down by the BS and the bad teachers carry on doing the minimum. We need to grow up and shake things up a bit. End the big Pension hand outs for poor performers, pay decent teachers a Decent wage.

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  15. An effort from up north (quite a reasonable piece, to be fair, except for the headline):
    http://www.scotsman.com/news/education/tearaway_children_terrorise_scotland_s_teachers_1_2028203

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  16. Point 10 absolutely bang on! Can I add that schools are expected to cure societies ills but then pressurised into focussing solely on results of tests! You can't have both.

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  17. Just as an aside I like to call point 10 "the Second Goldacre Fallacy" after Ben Goldacre.

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  18. What's the first? And do you mean he commits this fallacy, or is the scourge of it?

    T

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  19. Mr Bennet, sir, how very dare you have an opinion!
    Haven't you heard of the Gorwell Initiative? All teachers with an opinion are to be shut in a vault with Jeremy Kyle show footage on a loop for sociogyrorecalibration. Of course those with no opinion will be invited to cascade corporate messages to a wide-eyed audience of peers.

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  20. Ah, the First Goldacre Fallacy is this:

    Medicine=Science

    He most certainly commits the second.

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