At the chalkface: Clever?

Written by: Ian Whitwham | Published:

This will not happen until we junk the modern syllabus. It kills clever. It stifles it. It can’t remotely measure it. And there are many different ways of being clever, which go unrecognised.

The exam season comes to a close. Who won? Who lost? Who’s clever and who’s not?

But what is clever? Aren’t all pupils potentially clever? Or is it rationed out to the few? Can you buy it? Does a grade 9 GCSE mean you’re terrifically clever? Or a robot? What happens to very bright children in our schools?

These questions were prompted by reading The Sixties by Jenny Diski. A sometime teacher, she initially embraced its idealisms but became very disillusioned: “Why did we punish the brighter kids for not being underprivileged,” she asks brutally. “Punish”? That’s a bit harsh. We didn’t, not in my school. Teaching the brightest children – and my goodness so many were so bright – was a real pleasure. We were free to teach anything. The open-ended exams saw to that.

But whatever we mean by clever they are badly taught now. We’re so busy measuring levels that there’s little time to challenge them. Ian Warwick, director of London Gifted & Talented (www.londongt.org) regrets the thin resources and lack of attention they receive. We risk squandering young talent “on an industrial scale”.

Let’s rehearse a few myths about class and cleverness. There’s middle class clever. This seems to mean that it happens almost by osmosis. If you go to St Custard’s, it’s difficult not to go to Oxbridge. You can’t help it. You don’t quite know if you’re clever, you’re simply adept in an elaborate language code, part of the tyranny of the articulate. You’re fluent, perhaps bright. You need pushing outside of your comfort zone by fierce teaching.

There’s “working class” clever. This is more complex, masked and unacknowledged. “They” have the wrong or little cultural capital and a crippling language code. This is lazy thinking and causes self-fulfilling prophecies. Of course, “the working class” are just as clever, but they must be identified early and nourished by fierce teaching.

This will not happen until we junk the modern syllabus. It kills clever. It stifles it. It can’t remotely measure it. And there are many different ways of being clever, which go unrecognised. And many children are really bright, not the supposed few. They just go under the radar and don’t surface again. They are hungry for that fierce and fabulous teaching. This involves, among other things, teaching a tolerance of ambiguity, a grasp of metaphor, an acceptance of difficulty, an abandoning of certainty, a celebration of doubt. A process of defamilarisation. Not easy in the modern classroom.

Teachers need to be brave, risky, subversive, and passionate. They must ask killer questions not dumb down to fit the system. We mustn’t forget that most children are born very clever and that clever is classless.

  • Ian Whitwham is a former inner city London teacher.


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