More Hard Times


"Now, what I want is facts!" says our Important Visitor ― an emissary of the Gove. Haven't we heard this before?

“What we want is testing,” pipes the Great Man. The scene is a modern, shiny glass classroom at the Academy Of Transparent Learning.

“If we can’t measure it, it’s not learning,” goes the legend on his lectern. A blade of light falls across his face and lends it something of the gargoyle. He surveys the little vessels before him – my poor, low-runged 8th years – and waves a stick at a PowerPoint wall.

“So... what else do we want?” We elect ourselves mute. No matter. He ploughs on. “I will tell you!” He rakes the front row with a crazed, condescending gaze. “We want the 3Rs!” Pause. “And what are they?”

Erm... who know eh? Ritalin? Rock ‘n’ roll? Rid of him? “Rithmetic, Rigour and Rote Learning!” He points a finger at a girl at the back. “You! Girl number 20. What’s your name?” “Sissy, sir.” Sissy Jupe, a traveller, who lives on a barge off Little Venice. Much troubled, barely literate. “Girl Number 20! Define rigour!”

“Erm... stiff... dead... wiggle... dunno, sir.” The Great Man sighs. 

“Right! Rote! Come here and spell it!” Sissy quakes and walks to the board and takes a marker and spells it terrifically wrong. Poor Sissy. She is told how to spell it right about 50 times – Rote Learning style. “You will now know it!”

“He’s worse than Mr Donut!” says Ronald Crumlin. “Worse than Wigwam!” says Dave Mania. I derive scant comfort from these observations.

“Girl number 20! Define Rote!” “Something you writ!” “Wrong!” Well, what is Rote Learning? A contextless, pointless caper. A sort of mental mailbag sewing. Parrot Learning. Repetition of facts, until you’re blue in the face. We did it in the fifties – things like the five great lakes, pluperfects, enjambment, Tradewinds, Kipling. Then you forget them all. It flies in the face of all known learning theory.

“It is learning by heart!” says the minister. Heart? What a grotesque misnomer! It puzzles Sissy. It puzzles me. But it doesn’t puzzle our visitor, who has now become the Bully of Humility and starts barking at poor Sissy. To prove the efficacy of Govean Method, he orders her to spell “rote” again. She fails spectacularly again and blushes and is much crushed.

This rote stuff doesn’t seem to work. Our visitor is much miffed and informs Sissy that she’s “Stupid! Fact!” Dave Mania is beyond miffed and tells The Great Man that he is both a Bully and a Donut.



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