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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Teach them Betjeman, not Bebo

A friend has just come back from Costa Rica and tells me that if you climb the highest mountain you can see the Pacific in one direction and the Atlantic in the other. That stirring thought stirred something in me; dim memories of the line "upon a peak in Darien" and reading some history about one of the great European explorers who, I learn from a Colombian I recently had dinner with, are known locally as "pirates". When I got home I settled it with the help of Google. The line is Keats:
Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific - and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise -
Silent, upon a peak in Darien

Further reading indicates that it was Balboa, not Cortes, who climbed the peak and first caught sight of the Pacific, a moment in the history of exploration which is staggering and kind of funny at the same time. The poem is "On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer" which is inspired by a literary experience of looking at the world through fresh eyes.
Nuggets like this, from which the implications glint in lots of different directions, are the things I remember most fondly from my school days when we would get the teacher off the point and it didn't matter whether we were doing history, geography, literature, politics or philosophy. I learned more in those interludes than I did in the regular lessons. It also instilled the only valuable thing an education can instill - curiosity.
My teacher friends all agree that the National Curriculum has made tangents like this impossible. I'm not encouraged by today's announcement that the primary curriculum is to be revised to make pupils familiar with internet tools like Google and Twitter. I have a feeling that tools like these are at their most effective when they're filling the gaps left by traditional education and I find it hard to imagine primary teachers showing an eight-year-old how to use Facebook (which by then will have been supplanted.) Maybe they should take the time they're planning to devote to Twitter and use it to read a poem to them.

14 comments:

  1. The problem with the announcement about the new primary curriculum proposals is that people look at the headlines and dont consider how those proposals might affect teaching and learning in a positive way. Teaching 'about' Twitter and blogs as a headline is misleading - what it should be about (and is intended to be about i think) is teaching people to learn using those, and other technologies to collaborate, communicate and create. No-one is saying you can't teach poetry. The most positive teaching and learning will happen when the people passionate about poetry bring that together with the technologies available to them and their students and then create something new and inspiring.

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  2. AF: you only need a brain and a pencil to write a poem. Also being inspired by verse is different to learning how to write it. DH is right we should try to instil curiosity in learning, if only so as to avoid the endless dumb conversations in the tea room at work.

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  3. While curiosity is a great thing, kids need some basic framework of knowledge to slot things into, and give them some context for the things they discover through their curiosity.

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  4. This is one of those things that brings out the old fart in me (not he needs much of an excuse), for all the nonsense talked about teaching kids about collaboration and creativity it seems to me all we're teaching them to be is more distracted.

    I mean, I'm 46 and the internet is destroying my attention span. God knows what's it's doing to kids.

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  5. The mention of social networking sites and wikipedia guarantees headlines, though. Surely it's a major PR misstep to roll this out?
    If it's what it sounds like, it's moving in entirely the wrong direction. I have gleaned my information from the Guardian on this one, but hasn't the wiki way been widely discredited as far as actual facts are concerned? Mildly concerning.

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  6. I see Andrew Motion quit so there's a vacancy for Poet Laureate. Twitter should run a competition.

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  7. In the last twenty years technology has transformed the way people communicate, which is fine. It seems to me that transformation has been accomplished largely by trial and error. It's the biggest programme of self-education that's taken place in my lifetime. I think that by the time schools get there the technology caravan has generally moved on. As a parent I long ago ceased being impressed by schools that boasted about their I.T. facilities. I'm not sure I believe that the cause of education has really been advanced at all by the introduction of any of this kit. I've seen what the combination of Wikipedia and Project Culture has done to the average kid's approach to learning. Cutting and pasting has in too many cases replaced understanding. The only thing that impresses me about a school nowadays is a charismatic teacher who wants to teach.

    I mention poems because I think there's a lot to be said for rote learning. Multiplication tables, verses from the Bible, bits of poetry, speeches from plays, i before e except after c; these are all examples of things you ingest first and understand later, often much, much later. I have torn my hair out over the hours my children have had to waste picking apart the stories of Shakespeare's plays (stories which he generally pinched from somewhere else) rather than just memorising the Seven Ages of Man, which might go off in their heads when they're thirty-five. The spirit of Shakespeare is in the verse not the bloody story. And a tiny piece of verse is something you can carry with you for the rest of your life. Seamus Heaney was on the radio the other day saying he wished they did more of it in schools if only, he said, because "it nourishes the soul". That's not to say that there should be a block on the National Curriculum labelled "Poetry" and then a "period of consultation" leading to a list of the poems all 11-year-olds should be expected to know. Teachers should be given the freedom to digress from time to time. I think the best teachers are those that don't stop at the boundaries of their subject. Because education, like life, isn't subjects.

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  8. Kirstie- re: your comment about Wikipedia being discredited as far as facts are concerned. Does this imply that everything every published in book or magazine form is 100% accurate? I beg to differ. Wikipedia is at least transparent, and seeks continuous improvement, hence its 'citation needed' and 'this article may not meet the standards' prompts. Of course it's absolutely not perfect, but then neither are the 'tablets of stone' printed encyclopedias (there may be few factual errors but they are hopelessly out of date). DH's comment in his original post was revealing - he consulted Google to find the answer he wanted, not a weighty tome. Of course he did - anyone vaguely computer literate who did otherwise would be a masochist.

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  9. To be precise, I used Google to point me to some sources and then made a choice of source.

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  10. Point taken - Google is of course not itself a publisher of information, more a portal. The point I wanted to make was a mild response to the prevailing view that 'you can't trust the internet' particularly in relation to Wikipedia. The clear implication being that 'you can trust print', as if some infallible peer review process took place before the presses rolled.

    I do, however, agree with you about the pitfalls in schools teaching IT, as technology moves so fast these days that it would quickly become outdated.

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  11. How about this: schools should in no way be seen as entry-level professional training courses. Schools should encourage social skills and freedom of thought. The US seems to be light years ahead of the UK in this respect. Oddly enough, it also is in technical training. Go figure.

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  12. Even though my knowledge of the US schools system is soley based on "Teen flicks" I'll still take "encourage social skills and freedom of thought" with a pinch of salt.

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  14. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Reading Comprehension has suffered in recent years in the UK.

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