The death of teaching: A race to the Bottom?

Written by: Joel Wirth | Published:
Bottomed out? Reducing down complex topics – such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream – in order to ‘do’ them in key stage 3 could be cheating our students (Image: Adobe Stock)

What classroom and teaching practices might we change in order to achieve better lessons and better teaching? In the final part of his series, Joel Wirth looks at key stage 3, which he fears is too often anodyne and pointless...

The discussion around the table was reasonably animated for a Tuesday afternoon at the fag end of April. As ever, year 11 had sucked up most of what heat and light the staff had mustered and spreadsheets had been extensively scrutinised.

At 4:10pm, the key stage 3 curriculum review session began (apologetically requesting just 15 minutes meeting time like the poorest of poor cousins). Ten minutes in and passions were running high on the subject of Shakespeare for year 7.

Macbeth was proposed, a lone voice advocated Henry V, the majority wanted to stick with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which had been trotted out in all its donkey-headed, fully-resourced-PowerPoint-a-thon glory for at least three years.

Understandably tired of endless years of change, voting teachers opted for the status quo. The logic seemed to go that year 7s are small, both physically and intellectually, and somehow “closer” to the world of fairies and periwinkles which had been equated with childhood because – well, just because. They will read a bit and then write something. The clock ticks round towards home time...

I can’t resist this as among the finest examples from the many I could cite of the intellectual Race to the Bottom (I hope those of you familiar with the work of the Bard saw what I did there) that characterises so much of students’ experiences at key stage 3.

Most English teachers know that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a complex play about creation and artifice, about love and its many delusions. “Doing it” in year 7 more often than not reduces it to a fairy story, and not a particularly good one. Bereft of its intellectual heft it is anodyne and, like so much of key stage 3, pointless.

Ask any child in years 7 and 8, or even year 9 (if you’re not among the many schools who have responded to the fundamental inability of the profession to make key stage 3 meaningful by pretending that as much of it as possible is key stage 4). Ask your key stage 3 students why they’re doing whatever they’re doing. Ballads in year 8. The Elizabethan Age in year 7. Buddhism in year 9. It could be anything, the answer will be the same: “Don’t know.”

Some will tell you that it’s on the test at the end of the year or that it will decide which set they go into next year. Both seem to me a distillation of the same thing: we don’t understand the purpose of key stage 3 and, because we haven’t invested time in solving its fundamental enigma, we feel free to fill it with GCSE-lite or (perhaps more neglectful but no less unimaginative) any old nonsense.

You could try asking the staff why we’re doing this. I guarantee you that you won’t get a satisfactory answer.
History provides the most egregious examples of this but you’ll see it everywhere – maybe in your own classroom. If the last incarnation of the national curriculum (remember that?) showed us anything, it is that all knowledge, all subject content is contingent.

To many, the worst of the history strand of the national curriculum was its attempt to establish an unquestioning, partial, “pub quiz” national narrative. In itself, it represented a compelling invitation to the prairie-wide curricular freedoms of academisation.

And yet, those schools who adopted those freedoms all seem to have been suckered into the same functional approach. We know we need to do things that are academically challenging in key stage 3 but we don’t trust ourselves or our students enough to engage with real thinking, with real intellect.

And so we are left with the bizarre spectre of students studying the industrial revolution in year 8 by producing a series of posters. Or, in RE, exploring spirituality through drawing a labelled picture (Tick. Smiley face stamp. Target. Flick). Or reading the play of Frankenstein in English so that we can somehow claim to have “done Frankenstein”. Frankenstein’s a novel exploring issues that have profound and lasting relevance beyond its mere plot. If we think it’s worth doing, we should do it properly – exploring those themes through honest, intellectual graft – or not at all.

The ubiquity in key stage 3 of activities and practices such as these reflect the cowardice and the intellectual compromise which is so characteristic of school life for the average 12-year-old.

We were all children once and many of us are parents. I remember wishing away the sluggish days of being 13 so that I could get to the pastures of 18 and beyond. But I never felt that being 13 was a preparation for being 16. And as a parent, I want my 11-year-old’s school to see that child for what they are, not for what they will one day be when they actually count on the figures. Being 13 is not a preparation for being 16: it’s about being 13.

Start over

Ask those fundamental questions. Not “what should we do with year 7 in the spring term?’ but “beyond mere ‘facts’, what do we want students to understand by the end of the spring term and how will we decide what to teach to deepen that understanding?”

The predominance of “doing” rather than “understanding” is key. Start with yourself. You are expert. You know why your subject is important. You also know how 12-year-olds work: you know what fires them and you will sure as anything know what turns them off.

Your best lessons will have seen them respond to challenges that are real and in which they have something invested. I have never met a child who doesn’t want to be clever or do clever things. Kids respond best to issues that are richly intricate and challenging. Their boredom in lessons is more a reflection of the ease of what they are doing than its complexity.

If stuff is easy, why don’t we just photocopy it and have done? If we’re doing it, it should be because it is hard, because we’re going to have to struggle for it and because, even after that crucial, productive struggle, we may not reach a neat end point that can be easily assessed. If yawning Beth in the third row was your own child studying this subject that you love, what would you want her to understand about this topic? If this topic were studied at A level, how would it be different?

Now, try teaching the A level understanding.

Celebrate being both clever and ignorant

I used to start my form time (average ability school) once a week by exploring topics chosen by the students. I asked them what they wanted to know or got them to identify a topic they were doing in any one of their lessons, then led a 15-minute presentation on that topic where we discussed issues.

We got three such sessions out of “Why do England fans at the World Cup wear Crusader costumes?” We covered Richard the Lionheart (and busted the myth of him as a great English hero), the identity of Saint George, Edward III and the birth of Chivalry, Arthurian legend and national identity.

The school was 30-plus per cent British, Asian which led to further, fascinating discussion of the whole etymology of the term “Crusades” and its (ab)use in the English language.

“This is my favourite part of the week,” said one year 10 boy (an exhibitor of classic boredom-induced off-task behaviour around school). The questions they ask, the rabbits they set running, will reignite your love for learning and help you reflect on your own lessons. They will ask you stuff you don’t know. Go find out or wait for that magical moment when the quiet kid provides an answer or, memorably, offers to start off the discussion next week with a PowerPoint they’d done themselves.

Rebel

Key stage 3 is where we most indoctrinate students with the canon of unquestioned stuff – Battle of Hastings, Population Growth, Baroque Music – and where we hand to them the baton of precisely the kind of assumed narrative that the key stage 3 national curriculum for history represented.

Stop!

Ask your head of department if you can try something else. If Klimt is worthy of study it can’t be just because the department has always done it and have pre-ordered the gold paint. Be a student again and ask questions of what you teach. Identify the urgent, intellectual weight of whatever you are doing and devise a way of teaching that.

Save the world

Real learning is hard. It will frustrate. But it will also prove that simple “truths” (“Britain won the Second World War”) usually mask crucial nuances and that easy answers are the used car salesmen of the classroom. In a world bent on populist, easy read solutions, exploring the complexity of almost everything with students may be the most important thing you ever do for them.

  • Joel Wirth is a former teacher and senior leader who now works as a consultant headteacher. You can read the previous five articles in this SecEd series via http://bit.ly/2FERRgR


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