The Guardian reports:

Primary school testing and targets are to be streamlined to make exams for seven-year-olds less formal and part of a wider teacher-led assessment.

Meanwhile, on PEI, changes to home-school regulations which seem to make a lot of sense.


Rob Paterson's picture
Rob Paterson on June 6, 2003 - 03:08 Permalink

Alan has hit the nail on the head for me. Autonomy is so easily lost. We can lose our sense of who we are and who we can be in small and subtle steps. So small that often we can become actors in a Matrix and not even know it.

I have found this drive for conformity especially powerful in Canada.

I was amazed a few years ago when I worked at UTS in Toronto. For those of you that are not familiar with Toronto, UTS is the school where really bright kids go. It is a haven for the very clever. At UTS all the kids were brilliant and hence felt at home.

At UTS I found that most of the teachers were hanging on for dear life to their authority. They took their power from their role. They respected the brains of the kids but could not imagine them being able to make key decisions for themselves.

I was shocked.

I had spent 3 years at Oxford and 5 years at Harrow and had never seen a relational divide like that there. While both places are very formal, there was little use of positional power. If they used power it came from their superior intellect or ability. Not from their post as teacher.

The English school system was intensely competitive. With public national exams that made or broke you. But I never felt in a sausage machine, How well we did was upto us as students. We were allowed to do badly if we chose.

At Oxford you worked or you didn’t — it was up to you after all you were an adult. We would be given a question for the week and told to come back a week later and read your essay. No text book, no lecture — you had to go out and find out — or not. If you wanted a good degree, you worked for it — or not. The Tutor was indifferent. He was there to help — if you wanted it. At UPEI I find that it is like a big high school with set books, set lectures, classes and the demand to fit in. I find it so sad.

At Harrow the teachers had no role in discipline at all.

That was the preserve of the boys themselves. The implication was that the boys could manage the behaviour and discpline of 800 other boys entirely. Not what i see here where discipline and behaviour has become the bane of teachers. While 14 year olds were hooligans as they are all over, the 17-18 years old boys were acting like men.

This meant that the teachers were free to teach and to connect. What was huge at the school were all the non classroom activities such as games, theatre, music whatever were coached by the teachers in a collegial atmosphere of fellow rugby players, actors etc. We all participated not just the elite. By the time that we were 15 it was a first name world except in class when the formal aspect of teaching began. Even here there was a magic moment when class began. There would be a moment, a glance and Jeremy became Sir and Rob became Paterson. At the end of class, Jeremy would talk to Rob about the next rehearsal.

For most of us, on leaving, we could fairly say that many of the beaks had become our best friends. This fellowship on the stage, in the choir, in the cadets, in the orchestra opened up a trust in the class and opened up the window to learning. I don’t see this here at all. I hear such contempt when kids here I know talk about many (not all) of their teachers.

I find it such a paradox that so much of school here appears so power and obedience based while I experienced such humanity in what on the surface should have been a much more formal system.

Blair's picture
Blair on June 6, 2003 - 13:31 Permalink

I know nothing whatsoever about the English system, except what I have gleaned over the years from teachers who graduated from UK schools and came here to teach, and from what I have read.

One biography remains with me, “Goodbye to All That” by Robert Graves, who tells of a typical English education at Charterhouse, a private school. The discipline there was administered not by teachers, but by gangs of upper form boys who, if a smaller and younger boy fell into disfavour with the the leaders, would aggange for a flooging on the e bare buttocks and legs with a rattan cane. The all male student body created a military type of atmosphere, and encouraged a dalliance with homosexuality.

I mentioned the details of the repressive atmosphere of Charterhouse, which was documented in Graves’s book, to a teacher who went there as a student, and he defended the place. He also had his opinions about Island schools, chief of which was: the Island does a good job of teaching the slow learner, the challenged in General and Practical programs, but they do a bad job of teaching the gifted, who need more opportunity to exercise their creativity — even in mathematics.

I also taught with a Scottish gentleman, an art teacher who graduated out of the Glasgow public school system, and his complaint about Island (maybe Canandain schools) was that each teacher seems intent on teaching in his own little box and narrow range of curriculum. Therefore, the English teacher who may have been teaching a Hardy novel, never drew on the knowledge of the history teacher about the industrial revolution in Victorian England, who never talked to the art teacher who was teaching Victorian era painting. And he was right.

I also recall reading something in the Globe and Mail about “survivors” of English private schools. These men and women had such horrific experiences at the hands of sadistic student overlords that many, many of them needed therapy once they graduated, and they even had to form self help groups like the AA to manage their memories.

That said, I believe that the culture of a classroom, created by the teacher, is critical to freeing the student to manage his own learning and quality of expression and work. I was much saddened in the final 1/3 of my teaching career because of teh decline of bacis skills in languare — students showing up high school, who, after 10 years of public education could not write a cogent paragraph of 100 words without making many errors. They hadn’t an idea in their heads, nor a sentence skill in their tool kits. it was as if they had been deliberately made retarded.

More on this later

Blair's picture
Blair on June 6, 2003 - 14:53 Permalink

Well, this is my last kick at the cat — a rant.

A lovely lady teacher, in her 40s when I came into the profession, confided in me her misgivings about the changes in curriculum coming p from the US during the late 1960’s and ‘70’s, especially in English. She said: Were I paranoid, I would suspect that a conspiracy to destroy Canadian public education was afoot, a conspiracy to dumb down people. She was talking about fads such as whole language, language arts, peer editing, group projects, etc. I am not so sure she was wrong. George Orwell in “Politics and the English Language” made the connection between slovenly language breeding stupidity, and that was before abominations such as ebonics and the search for the holy grail of the student’s “voice.”

So, we are reaping the rewards of inclusion, “creative spelling,” labyrinthine sentences, and ranting that passes for composing.

At the beginning of grade ten, I challenge each student I meet the first day in grade ten: write me an error-free, ten-sentence paragraph on any subject and I will buy you a special at the cafeteria. After nine long years of public education, I never had to buy a special. And I had mnade my point. They were ignorant.

I had to start at the beginning -parts of speech, rules of agreement, tenses, clausal and phrasal parts of the sentence and the various effects on the ear and mind if they were reordered. I was doing work my grades five and six teachers did with me. Then I taught them ways to order of their thinking: narrative or spacial or logical. Then I taught them logic, and the ways to write convincing text based on authorities and evidence and cause and effect, to name a few. Then I taught then 20 rhetorical strategies to sweeten the persuasion. Then I showed then the best student essays I could find and we did textual analyses to discover when made them so effective. Then we moved onto Julius Caesar and broke apart Antony’s speect to the mob, and carefully discovered the subtle play on emotions and misinformation and imagery and pace and rhetorical nuances, such as balanced phrasing, metaphor and silile, apostrophe, and the passion in the packaging of ideas and feelings. Then we went on to formal essays -and I taught then how to evaluate the logic and emotional content of an argumentive essay, a sequence and connectedness of a narrative essay, and the appeal to eye and ear in a descriptive essay. I ran off Rossenblatt from Time and articles from Harper’s. We looked at openings, connective ideas, the diction and phrasing, the allusions, and authorities. We discovered the lies embedded in generalizations, false analogies, appeals to Patriotism, false hypotheses, begging the question, and complex questions. In short, we learned that writing and speaking well is very, very difficult. It is exquisitely complex. Then we moved onto other genres, the short story, I then made them do their own thinking. Respond to the fiction in 700/1000 words. They were on their own. Their job was to write clean, cogent, interesting text on literature. My job was to spend Sundays reading and commenting in the margins. With a red pen.

I am retired now and tutor occasionally. But when I get a kid from grade 10 or 11 who asks me the difference between “I” and “me,” I feel that the damage is too profound for me to remedy. How can I begin to explain when to use the objective form of the pronoun after the preposition or as an objective complement when he has never heard of either. Or to avoid the passive voice. Or how to recast sentences with too many phrases or dependent clauses. Or to use the possessive before the gerund. Or why people say, “if I were a rich man,” instead of “If I was a rich man.”

Had I had this kid in grade ten, he would not have been asking me a grade 4 question in grade 10. Orwell was right. Inaccurate, ugly language makes it possible to have stupid thoughts, and maybe the conspiracy theory is trur. For what does government and business want more than a stupid electorate and stupid consumers. Antony knew that and used language to get his way with the rabble. The job of a teacher on PEI is to refine the language adn thinking of teh poor so that they can protest themselves from CEO’s and Politicians. And the children most compromised by a decline in rigour in schools are the poor. Orwell knew that, and it’s still true

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on June 6, 2003 - 16:07 Permalink

When the big new wave of education hit Ontario in the early 1970s, I was standing on the beach: I was 5 years old in 1971, the Hall-Dennis Report had just come out, and they were starting to install round desks, build “multi-purpose” rooms, and change the titles of courses (“English” to “Language Arts” and so on).

By the time I was in junior high — in a school that had been built in the late 1960s and designed for the “new education,” — the revolution was over, the dividers installed in the “open” classrooms, the “audio-visual centre” turned back into the library.


If I can use a computer analogy: it’s because the reform process involved installing new software on old hardware. And the old hardware didn’t know what hit it. You can’t reasonably expect professionals who have been trained to teach in a certain fashion, and who have honed their skills for 10, 15, 20 years, to suddenly throw out everything then know and “teach new.” And, indeed, none of them did. While there were some teachers, fresh out of college, who did adopt the revolution entirely, most of the teachers I had from grades 1 to 8 paid it lip service — they did enough to appear to have changed, but their hearts weren’t in it.

The result was that my elementary school education consisted of a style of education sitting somewhere between “old traditional” and “new radical.” It was a freaky cyborg that didn’t make anyone comfortable, least of all we students.

When the dust had cleared, and there was enough momentum to jump back with both feet to “old traditional,” our teachers did this quickly. And with the kind of “see, we told you so” determination that probably took us back 40 years, and threw a lot of baby out with that funky, hip bathwater.

By the time I hit teacher’s college myself — an aborted year-long effort in 1985 — my soon-to-be-teacher peers were a conservative bunch of kids who, on balance, seem to have thoroughly enjoyed their education. I found them lacking in imagination, afraid of change, and completely unable to process unusual approaches to anything, least of all education.

We watched the Summerhill film, and they took it as a cautionary tale, not a fountain of ideas. I wondered, at one point, mostly as a Gedanken experiment, why we bothered to teach reading at all, and didn’t “teach television.” I was treated as a heretic. Really.

I remain convinced, 30 years after the revolution that petered out, that had things been different, many of the new ideas about learning and education that flew up in the late 1960s would have stuck. I don’t pretend to know how things would have had to have been different: maybe the problem was an impossible one to solve.

nadia's picture
nadia on March 22, 2004 - 11:35 Permalink

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