Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Potemkin School

History teaching has moved on from all those Kings and Queens, battles and dates, rote learning* etc. Now, as somebody said, learning is skills-based, not facts-based - students are 'taught to learn' and become self-powered, self-motivated learners, 'accessing and evaluating a range of sources' etc etc.

One of the ways in which they play at being historians is the page of sources - where children are given half a dozen carefully selected paragraphs from half a dozen carefully selected sources, and invited on the basis of same to pronounce on whether the Tommies of World War One really were lions led by donkeys.

My daughter was presented last week with a photograph of a dingy nineteenth-century street in Liverpool (or London - I forget)** , and asked for homework to pronounce on what it told her about poverty in Victorian Britain. A long and hopefully not unfruitful debate followed - during which she suggested that the photographer may have been looking for the worst street, to make a political point, and Laban pointed out that it could also work the other way round. A Government photographer, for example, may be looking for the best working class housing and the rosiest children to snap. I mentioned the idea of the Potemkin village, where artifice may produce a misleading impression.

Now in my daughter's school, there's a special programme for the bad and the unfortunate - the disruptive and nasty kids as well as those with learning difficulties (I fail to see why the latter should be lumped with the former, but it seems to be the way in "special schools" as well). It's called something like the K2 Programme, and the kids are 'the K2 kids'.

Back to Potemkin.

"Just consider", I said, "when the OFSTED inspectors are in your class, whose workbooks are out on display, and who does the teacher ask questions of ? Your bunch, or one of the K2 kids?"

"They can't ask them. When the inspectors come, all the K2 kids get sent on coach trips !"

* (except it hasn't - because the exams are now marked by temporary staff, rather than by people who know the subject. These temps don't have the knowledge to review all-round competence in a subject - instead they look for the "key phrases" which earn the marks. A semi-literate answer with the key words or phrases will earn more marks than a great sentence or paragraph which doesn't include the key words. Now the children HAVE to rote-learn these key words, and we've got the worst of both worlds).

** it bore a remarkable resemblance to the street in The King's Speech which was supposedly the 1930s home of the Aussie speech therapist, but looked straight out of Dickens.


Anonymous said...

Some years ago I went to this place <a href=">Llechwedd Slate Caverns</a>.

The tour guide, imbued with righteous left(ish) moral indignation told us how children worked underground for 6d a day (or a week) I forget.

As I tried to point out to him this may well have been true <i>at some point</i> but that we would expect the amount to rise over time and of course at some stage child labour was stopped. And presumably it was lower at an earlier time.

Im not denying the general point about the horrors of child labour but the average punter would be left with the impression that children worked for generations for an unchanging 6d. Cherrypicking much like the photo you referenced.

Anonymous said...

Oh I see we arent doing links then?

Ah, I see, I missed the second ". Can that be altered?

Mark said...

'A semi-literate answer with the key words or phrases will earn more marks than a great sentence or paragraph which doesn't include the key words.'

HR departments in large organisations (especially public sector ones) also operate on this principle when looking at supporting statements /covering letters from job applicants. Sadly, dumbing down infects the wider world as well as our schools

dearieme said...

A few years ago I learnt that the children employed in the Lancs cotton mills typically weren't employed by the mill owners - they were employed by workers - typically family members - as subcontractors of a sort.

James Higham said...

There are a lot of tales like this. Our former head had kids shift computers from one classroom to the next, just before the Ofsted inspectors got there and so on.

Foxy Brown said...

@ Anon and Dearieme,

All part of the, "Weren't the Victorians evil and exploitative?" self-righteous liberal agenda.

Weekend Yachtsman said...

In Solzhenitsyn (writing from the home of real Potemkin villages ;-), we get an even better example:

Apparently, skilled prisoners used to remove whole bathroom suites from one floor of a newly-built block and install them elsewhere in the same building, while the party top brass were inspecting it, in order to cover up the fact that they only had a few baths, toilets, etc for a whole block of flats.

Now that's enterprising.