Knowing where to start……..and where to go.

GCSE project work coming together. Re-designed practice amp by one of our students.

It is amazing how quickly two weeks can fly by, isn’t it?  The Easter holiday is now over and it is back to work with a vengeance, though of course, many of use will have spent a greater or lesser part of our holiday catching up with work, planning work or getting ahead with work.  I have to admit I never seem to get to that last one really.  DATA, the Design and Technology association, continue to do a great job arguing the case for the subject in the curriculum revisions and if you have not already done so get over to their site and check out what is happening.  Plenty more fur to fly if the response Tristram Shepherd got to his post on the relative values of learning facts or skills is anything to go by.  If you don’t know his blog it is well worth a visit but this time he seems to have touched a few raw nerves, not least among History teachers.  Have a read through some of the comments the this post:

The news from our political master is that he plans to give universities the task of setting A level exams so that they can be the ones who establish entry criteria for themselves.  Hang on a minute, doesn’t that sound exactly like what used to happen, in fact isn’t that how exam boards originated?  Novel idea that.  All part of the return to Victorian values, oh no, that was another Conservative government wasn’t it?  The argument put forward by many educators is that the government is making an error in determining that the way to educational success is through a return to learning facts.  As a counter to the direction in which the government, or at least parts of it seem to be moving some of us have argued that simple retention of facts is a relatively useless goal.  In this discussion someone will usually say that almost any fact can be retrieved painlessly from the internet in a matter of seconds, intending  to illustrate their point.  Of course this is a truism but there are some serious riders that should be considered.  If you are a thinking, reasoning person then you will easily take for granted your facility to identify the information that you need, conduct the search in a meaningful way and make productive use of the answers.

We know that all too many of our pupils are not up to that set of tasks.  Many teachers bemoan the fact that their students expect everything to be done for them, almost all are frustrated by the lack lustre  way in which students carry out internet research and increasingly we are realising that in spite of the much vaunted ease with which children use new technologies they are stunningly naive in their judgements.  These are not criticisms but they should cause us to reflect on the way in which we teach these things, if we do teach them at all.  I have lost count of the number of times that I have come across a task which starts off with the phrase, “Design a” and here you can insert a random task of your choice such as poster, presentation, leaflet and so forth.  Nothing wrong with that except that almost always such work is set by those who have no clue what design is, much less that they need to teach it.  I suspect that a lot of school based ICT work is the same, children working on a computer, not because they are learning anything but simply so that they can present it neatly.  If you are not already then you should be teaching children how to use new technologies to develop their thinking.

And here’s the rub, we need to accept that neither fact based learning nor process based learning are sufficient models for education.  For some very cogent argument in support of the need to learn facts to scaffold the architecture of our minds have a look at this,  The point is that it is quite obviously impossible to learn how to think without thinking about information.  Equally it is of little worth learning facts unless you have the wherewithall to do some useful thinking with and about those facts.  The issue is not really about what subjects are taught on the school curriculum but that we should teach our children to think.  The problem with Michael Gove’s view, as he expresses it at least, is that it appears to swing too far in one direction and by doing so it loses all sense of balance.

Another reflection on this which night throw some light on a number of issues is that we have not yet really worked out the relationship between mind, brain and body.  One of the most useful approaches to this for me is personal construct theory which points out that knowledge is rarely acquired in a vacuum: an idea is composed of thoughts, feelings, memories.  An idea, a construct can also become an integral part of our personality.  So much good work had been done in moving towards a more holistic picture of learning in our national curriculum with social and emotional aspects of learning and personal learning and thinking skills.  It seems a great shame that this should be marginalised because it did not form part of our secretary of state’s educational experience.

And of course once a construct, such as my image of myself as a Design Technology teacher becomes a fundamental part of my personality then I will react like a caged tiger if you denigrate it in any way.  It is no longer simply a subject you are threatening, it is my existence as an independent personality.  For many of us who worked hard to achieve our qualifications this becomes a part of how we define ourselves.  How tragic it would be if we failed to understand this and let our personal battles dictate the future of education in this country.



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