Horses for Courses

I must have been mad answering a tweet on a Sunday morning in bed. Instead of enjoying the breakfast my husband had brought for me and reading the paper, I ended up in a twitter fight about posters. My egg went cold. And then today, faced with a to-do list as long as Pinocchio’s nose, I ended up doing it all again. So I thought, in the interests of procrastination, that I would blog. Not just about posters. Frankly, I rarely used them myself; I just take issue at being told what I can and can’t do. No, this is about the increasing misuse of what people like to call “the real world” in justifying practices in school life.

Let’s start with uniform. My eldest son was one of those kids who looked like he’d been dragged across a rugby field, face down, with the entire scrum stamping on his back. Every day. Even as he stepped out of a shower. Clothes were ripped in seconds. Hair grew in all directions. Mud stuck. He was constantly in trouble at school for uniform misdemeanours. His nickname was “Tramp”. I’m not proud. Second son is pristine – it just seems to be the way they were. Anyway. He was told time and again that his appearance would be a problem “in the real world”. He would have to wear a tie. His shoes would have to be polished. No-one would employ anyone who looked “like that”.

He went to Oxford where suddenly it seemed de rigour to turn up to your lectures and ‘tutes’ in a onesie. I guess when you can stagger from your bed to your tutor’s office in less than ten seconds, there seems little point in getting dressed. No-one cared. The tutors were interested in their students’ minds not their dress. Still – that was not “real world” was it? The tie was coming. And there were days where he had to wear gowns. Not dressing gowns.

So he graduated. And got a job. In one of the biggest media agencies, working on a team representing two of the most famous companies in the world. I met him for a drink on Monday night. He stumbled out of his swanky office door in jeans, a t-shirt and converse.

“Don’t you have to wear a suit?” I asked, thinking of the money his grandparents had spent kitting him out for “real world of work”.

“Nah – no-one wears suits,” he said. And I looked around at the commuters pouring out of offices all around us and I saw he was a liar. Some people wore suits. But to be fair, most did not.

Why do we tell children that they must wear uniform because this will be expected of them in “the real world” when it is quite clearly a lie? They may. They may not. There may be other good reasons to insist that children wear uniform, but let’s not pretend that it is in preparation for adult life.

And we’re not much better when it comes to classroom practices. Postergate seemed to centre around the pointlessness of making posters. A lazy time wasting activity for losers. One blogger wrote that “real” historians didn’t make posters so he wouldn’t get children to make them in his classroom. Another complained that posters were “ubiquitous” and “on walls”. I’m not sure where else I’d put them to be honest. The thing is, in the “real world” posters are everywhere. They tell us which tube station to get to. They sell us stuff. They inform us about the exhibit we are seeing. They can even change our minds and make us do things we don’t want to. Like joining the army. The power of the poster to communicate is so widely accepted in “real world” that billions of pounds are spent on producing them. Academics have to make them to take to conferences. Shouldn’t children have an opportunity to examine the role of the poster in our “real world” communication systems? Isn’t this a form of literacy?

When I was doing my O Level, in the “good old days” – one of the tasks on the paper was to take a long passage of text and to precis it into a limited word count. It was a difficult skill to master. It seems to me that effective posters ask exactly this of children. They force a condensing of language to its essential elements, while also perhaps asking that it is memorable and creative. That’s a pretty tough set of skills. Indeed, the old AQA English Language A Level course had a paper that asked students to do exactly this. To take a large amount of textual information and to re-present it in a new form for a specific audience. Sometimes that new form involved making a poster, or leaflet. It was not an easy task and required careful thinking and selection; an ability to know what was relevant, to reword and to summarise with the needs of a particular audience in mind.

I have some sympathy with the view that giving children a glue stick and some sugar paper and telling them to go away, find out and make a poster, is a lazy task. But to frame that task with audience and purpose in mind; to think about intention and effect – these are important “real world” skills. As with any teaching and learning task, it is purpose and quality that matters.

And while I used posters rarely myself, one of the best wall displays I ever had in my room was created by Year 8s. It was a jigsaw of posters, making up a comprehensive view of Elizabethan society in preparation for studying Shakespeare. Each group had a different focus – The Role of Women, The Role of the Monarchy, Poverty and Wealth, The Arts, Religion, Foreign Affairs and so on. Together they gave an overview of some of the issues underpinning the contexts of the texts we would read. It was not frivolous work.

Perhaps it’s time for us to stop trying to control everyone else by imposing our own prejudices on them. And let’s stop trying to justify our attempts to control children by feeding them stories about life in “the real world”, especially if we went straight into teaching from college. Instead let’s focus on the quality of what we do. That we make sure that whatever choices we make, they have integrity and purpose to them and we can explain why we are doing what we do. And that these decisions are always in the best interests of the child. That’s “real” enough for me.

Bringing out the best?

I did a little triathlon this weekend. Six weeks ago I couldn’t run for two minutes without stopping. I think we can say that’s rapid and sustained progress. But there were some problems. I swim a lot. I was confident, getting into the lake that the swim would be the easiest part. I’m used to swimming up to 2 miles at a time and this was a measly 250 metres. I set off, powering close to the front when something odd happened. My breathing was off. The effort of lifting my arms in a wet suit seemed greater than it had ever done before. I was gaspy (and in swimming, breathing is everything). I started to panic. If I struggled with the swim, what was the rest of it going to be like? The last 50 metres were a blur of panting, taking in water and worry. I got out knees trembling and realised that I had completely underestimated the impact of fear and nerves on performance. The rest of the event was fine and I finished, but it made me think.

I was ready. I was fit. But I underperformed because of anxiety. Every year, thousands of children are ready. They are fit and prepared. They walk into an exam hall and fall apart. Maybe only for part of the exam, maybe for all of it. But they crumble and the consequences stay with them for life. What are we really testing in an exam situation? I don’t think it’s knowledge – even for a confident candidate, there isn’t enough time to demonstrate a really good range of knowledge. And given the move to linearity, it’s not resilience – we’ve removed the ideal of “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” and replaced it with “one chance, don’t mess it up”. So we must conclude that exams are there to weed out the anxious and to place them on a scrapheap. Why?

I can see that in competitive sport, you need to be able to hold your nerve. But in the workplace? Are there really that many high risk jobs that require people to have strong nerves under pressure? Where is the line between brave and foolhardy? Look at the risks taken in the banking industry by people who could hold their nerve while making transactions worth billions in a matter of seconds. They brought the economic world to the brink of collapse. Are these the character traits we really want in society?

When we seek to assess a child, we need to ask whether or not the assessment model is there for the convenience of the system, or to meet the needs of society as a whole. I don’t think our current system meets the needs of society or the needs of individual children. There has to be a better way. A system that offers a balance of examination, creative portfolio based assessment, work experience with character references, volunteer work…. this kinds of assessment package would allow all kinds of human traits to thrive and be recognised. It would offer us a real set of skills applicable to all kinds of future situations. It would be more humane. And so, if the swim went belly up – there would be other events to offset it. It’s worth a tri – surely?