I would like to apologise in advance for any ranty-ness that may come from this post. Tonight, BBC2 begins its ‘school season’ with Gareth Malone’s Extraordinary School For Boys. The trailers show this ‘revolutionary’ teacher running around, ‘play-fighting’, climbing trees and being ‘dangerous’ in order to get boys engaged in learning. Brilliant! You might think. But these trailers are enough to have me almost screaming at the television.
It is a given these days that boys are generally falling behind the girls with regards to early education. There are countless educational studies that suggest boys simply do not learn at the same rate as girls in these early years, as well as learning in a different way. But it is only this second area of reasoning that major TV channels seem to focus on, the BBC being the latest preacher. Girls tend to act, in the most part, a little like a sponge and accept given fact while boys need to experiment as to why and how. Without making the whys and hows interactive and, dare I say, actually interesting the information rarely sticks with context.
So, here comes the latest in a line of ‘enlightening’ programmes to tell the world how it should be – that boys need to feel risk and excitement and interest when learning. Another programme suggesting lessons should be outside and in places free from restraint, that boys should not be pegged behind a table forced to write every last detail. Another programme to promote fun in learning. Now, this might come as a shock to programmers, but any good teacher ALREADY KNOWS THIS!
Maybe, instead of righteously condemning the country’s good teachers who strive endlessly to engage their pupils, programme makers could look at the reasons as to why these adventure style teachings don’t go on. Or more to the point, why they can’t go on. Schools have finite resources for a start and a pitiful amount of money to spend. What money they do have is often over-spent as it is on simple day to day resources and simple basic needs. The average government funded school is incapable of being able to cater for such frivolity, regardless of how important its need. I won’t even begin to delve into the health and safety debacle that would inevitably correspond.
Instead, local authorities are compelled to spend their cash on countless ‘government initiatives’ to bridge such gaps in learning and to intervene in all those children behind in reading, writing and maths. This is of course wonderful (if not a little misdirected at times) but surely, if ALL teachers had the skill, resource and freedom to provide ‘fun’ learning from the get-go, less money would need to be poured into these exceptionally expensive and, more often than not, pointless projects.
Which brings me to bureaucracy. There is so much red tape surrounding schools that Father Christmas could wrap an infinite number of presents and infinite number of times. It is completely ridiculous and unworkable (one of the reasons I left full time teaching). There are so many dos and don’ts and hoops to jump through that our educational forces are simply too exhausted to create the interactive curriculum required, they simply do not have the time. If there was a little more trust in schools (I appreciate this is a very difficult thing to instil when there are still so many poor teachers working in the world) and a lot less paper work, the surviving good teachers could provide a curriculum that not only addressed the vastly different learning styles but the slower pace of learning that boys tend to follow.
And to be honest, suggesting that we teachers don’t know that boys need to run around and laugh when learning is more than a little insulting. One of my favourite series of lessons I designed for my ten year olds led up to writing various types of report. One morning we were suddenly alerted to an ‘accident’ in the hall by an older pupil. My class, boys and girls, ran down to the hall to find a classmate ‘murdered’. They then had to use clues in the hall to locate the ‘murder weapon’. Once we had collated the initial information (and the child in question was allowed to sit up again – by the way, he was a ‘dramatic’ so he loved playing dead. He even put out his red jumper to make it look like blood on the floor!) we returned to the classroom where my amazing TA had turned around the pre-prepared ‘murder inquiry board’. On this I had already pinned photos, witness statements (I had written) from both pupils and staff, and various other CSI type documents. There were red herrings thrown in, twists and turns in relationships, all very Morse – I was so proud of myself it was embarrassing!
They then followed the project through, learning higher order reading skills to deduce the answer, as well as producing further statements, police reports, news paper and TV reports. It took about six weeks in all, but from this starter the children were captivated. The board stayed in place and each child had a set of post-its so whenever a thought occurred they could add to it – at any time of the school day. But we were able to include videos and books which also had an element of our theme. Children, some for the first time, were going to the library to find books that fit with our subject. For me it was so invigorating and I do truly miss making such lessons – OK, they might not have involved climbing trees, but the very best I could do with time and resource.
But, even though I have a very different role now, I still do not ignore the fundamental issues with boys learning. My corner is designed specifically with them in mind – for most of the interactive elements we will need to sit on the floor, I have devised games which involve jumping around and using lots of space, I have a whole host of resources which are ‘non-girly’ (dinosaurs and monsters rather than using the ‘shop’). But I have the benefit of being able to work with one child at a time – which brings me to another issue I doubt Gareth Malone has addressed; do we think perhaps our class sizes are too big? There are many corners of the world where the government are capping class numbers at 12 and 15. Contrast that with 36 plus in many places on top of all the other issues mentioned above.
So, no I won’t be watching BBC2 tonight. I don’t really want to put a book/laptop/fist/shoe through Steve’s posh telly. Obviously, I could be very wrong and the programme may be hard hitting on the above, highlighting to the world the pathetic state our education system is in. But I doubt it. Until the system has had an overhaul you will continue to see these gaps, because teachers, believe it or not, are not superhuman. Most work damn hard, do a damn good job yet for BBC2, it’s still not good enough.
For any teacher’s reading – continue fighting the good fight, and don’t let the buggers get you down.