The other day I read an article relating (once again!) to Michael Gove who was, until last week, Secretary of State for Education in England. As anyone who has read my blogs before will know this gentleman is not my favourite politician – I am not alone in that. His tenure in the post for the past 4 plus years has seen a continual war being fought between him, teachers, academics and many parents. He has been, to say the least a controversial figure. However, he has now been moved on to other spheres of influence so there will be fewer of my blogs devoted to him. You will, no doubt, cheer that fact!
|Just like the desks we sat in when I was eleven - and the |
inkwells are visible. Mr Gove would be proud!
The article that I read was a collection of memories and anecdotes by various people who had dealings with Gove over the past few years. With very few exceptions they were universally critical of the man. One item, however, caught my eye. It was written by a primary school music teacher who, over the past few years had on numerous occasions visited the Department of Education in London to attend meetings/courses etc. This is an extract from what she wrote:
I used to go to the Department for Education when it was the Department for Children, Schools and Families. Then, it was smothered in imagery of children and playgrounds. Wherever you were in the building you always knew where you were – it wasn't health or environment, it was education. After the election, Gove took this all down and put this 19th-century pupil writing desk in the foyer. It was such a clear sign of what was going to happen to schools.
As anyone who has lived through the past 4 years while the Department for Education has been under Gove’s stewardship will know the antique pupil writing desk was indeed a physical manifestation of what the man stands for - of Gove’s desire to turn the classroom clock back, for schools to be more “traditional”, to be more “academic”, to be more rigorous in their testing, to return to well tried and perhaps “old fashioned” teaching methods and discipline and to be more traditional in their values and curriculum. Well, all that is as maybe. As a teacher of forty years and at a personal level I often reflect that a bit of tradition is no bad thing. Having said that the displaying of a 19th century pupil’s desk and all that it implies about the Gove’s and government’s view of the nature of 21st century education is worrying. I also find it concerning that one man should be able to impose his own beliefs and prejudices on the nation’s education system - no matter how laudable, inspired or, in Gove’s case, madcap they might be.
|All my yesterdays - items that once ruled my world but soon became |
obsolete and the knowledge redundant
But leaving all that aside let me move on. Later on the same day that I read the article I was tidying a drawer in my office and came across one or two things from my past – things that were once very important to me and my life. Firstly, my old slide rule. Before entering teaching I worked as a design draughtsman in an engineering drawing office. In those far off days – the early 60s - a slide rule was a basic tool of every draughtsman or engineer. In those pre-computer/calculator days it was vital in every calculation that you worked out – logarithms, sines, cosines, everyday calculations. It was part of my daily professional world. Learning the skills to use the thing was one of the first things that I was taught when I started my career in that drawing office – John Newton, the chief draughtsman, took me into his office to guide me. When I attended college as part of my training time was devoted to ensuring that young trainees like me were fully conversant with this tool and its associated skills. And now it lies redundant and obsolete in my office drawer. As I held it in my hand the other morning I tried to remember what the numbers on each scale represented and how I should use it to perform a simple calculation. True, its use was fairly specific, but it was of its time and has now been passed over in favour of electronic aids which, of course, require different skills. As I rummaged further through my office drawers I came across other items from my past. A set of French Curves which was also part of my everyday work in the drawing office – helping me to draw exact curves to meet certain criteria. These were not simply to make the design drawing look pretty but to ensure that the men on the workshop floor could make the required item exactly and accurately so that it worked and fitted into its correct position to within thousands of an inch. Today, I would guess that sort of thing is all computer generated – the skills and the equipment that I practised, needed and used half a century ago have disappeared and been replaced by others - and all my knowledge and skills in that area are now merely redundant and consigned to the waste basket of history. And finally, in my drawer, a bottle of ink. Not, perhaps, totally redundant today but still something that has been largely replaced for many people as ballpoint pens, felt tips, word processors, computers, e-mails and the like have made writing with an ink pen a marginalised activity. Just as the quill pen (and with it the skill of quill sharpening) was consigned to the waste bin when the “modern” fountain pen came along so, too, fountain pens in their turn – and all their associated writing skill requirements – are largely things of the past. As I looked at the bottle, which has probably not been opened for almost half a century, I thought how many hours I had spent in my early teaching career working with children to ensure that they could grip and successfully use an ink pen. I reflected, too, that although I have a fountain pen which I still use when appropriate, my modern pen is charged with pre-filled cartridge, and doesn’t require a bottle of ink. Times have changed. I recalled that when I was a eleven year old child at school, sitting in a desk not unlike that on display at Michael Gove’s Department for Education each desk had a little pot inkwell sitting in a whole in the desk. We boys would dip our stick pens into the inkwell as we blobbed and scrawled in our exercise books. Every Friday afternoon, my teacher, the much feared Mr Roberts, would choose one boy to be the inkwell monitor for the afternoon. We all desperately wanted to win Mr Roberts’ approval so worked diligently on Friday hoping that we would be the chosen one. If I was lucky one then late on Friday afternoon while other boys were still working I would proudly and silently creep around the classroom with the ink container carefully replenishing the ink in each of the little white pot inkwells so that all was ready for Monday morning. And, of course, inkwell refilling itself was, in its time an important skill - using the inkwell filler correctly so that no ink splashed onto the desks was crucial if one didn’t want to incur Mr Roberts’ wrath!. But no more, times have changed.
All these items and skills are now largely replaced by others. It’s the way of the world. That’s the problem with knowledge and much of what we learn – it has a massive obsolescence factor. And it has always been thus. We cannot blame it on the modern world. A thousand years ago William the Conqueror’s knights practised their battle skills by riding at speed ducking and diving through dense forests to imitate battle conditions – but with the invention of the gun much of that became immediately redundant. Three hundred years ago, the skills of the home weavers producing cloth were major parts of life and everyday economics of every village and hamlet but the invention of the steam engine and the modern loom altered the industrial and employment landscape. Great factories grew and the old home weavers’ skills and knowledge were no longer needed – different mind and skill sets were required. And today, it seems, knowledge is expanding and accelerating at a phenomenal rate – what is useful today will almost certainly have only a very short life span.
|Just like the inkwell filler we had in Mr Roberts' class -|
the skill was to fill the little pots without makinjg a blob
My mother in law, who died in 2006 just a few years short of her century often remarked how her generation had seen so much change. She was right and future generation will see even more – and schools have to be responsive to this. Mr Gove’s antique desk implicitly suggesting that “the good old days of education” were the best and something to return to could not be more wrong. Both in content and in approach education has to look forward and schools have to anticipate and continually change, evolve and respond to an ever changing world. I have absolutely no doubt that what is being taught to my grandchildren today in their respective schools (good though they are) will be less relevant and may, like my slide rule or French curves be redundant knowledge and skills by the time my grandchildren leave school to enter the world of work. Such is the nature of change, the world and education. Michael Gove’s desire to look back might be appealing but it is also very, very wrong and does children and society no favours at all.