Ego-stroking dressed up as educational reform

In Britain’s ‘new vision’ for primary education, adults are reduced to the mere flatterers of techno-savvy kids. It’s a recipe for ignorance.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

In her monthly column, Jennie Bristow sends today’s parenting fads and panics to the naughty step. This month, she argues that the UK government’s proposals for overhauling primary-school education are an insult to children’s intelligence and parents’ aspirations.

My eldest daughter has recently discovered a passion for computers. We have been duly impressed by her dexterity with the mouse, and her confidence in making the machine do what she wants it to do.

Of course, being aged four, what she wants to make the machine do is to play dress-up Tinkerbell and basic clicky games on the CBeebies website. If she wants to get the most out of computers, and the wonderful world of the web, she will need a bit more knowledge. Learning to read would be a start; learning enough history and science to seek out information, and to sort good information from bad, will hopefully follow on. In the course of this development, she will learn that computers are only as good as the people who use them, and that having access to ideas and resources only makes sense if you know what to do with these things.

I am confident that my daughter will learn these basic truths, as they seem to me fairly obvious. But I am prone to moments of despair; particularly when reading things like the British government’s new proposals to overhaul the primary school curriculum.

An interim report by Sir Jim Rose, who was commissioned by the government to lead a review of primary education, has called to give greater prominence to ICT (Information Communication Technology) in education for little kids, and to replace the teaching of traditional subjects, like history and geography, with something called ‘cross-curricular study’ or ‘theme-based learning’ (1). There should also be ‘greater focus on personal development’.

From an educational perspective, there are many aspects of the Rose review that demand some critical questioning. An excellent leader in The Times (London) has pointed out that the likely consequence of the reforms will be a ‘watered-down muddle’, and argues: ‘The function of primary school is to teach children how to learn. That means knowing enough facts to develop a sensible hypothesis about the world. It means progressively mastering a series of tasks that build up to knowledge. It does not mean the kind of passive downloading that universities have become so concerned about.’ (2)

But the educational implications of the Rose review are only part of the problem. As a parent, what concerns me even more than the impact such proposals will have on our children’s brains is the impact they will have on children’s sense of themselves, their peers, and the adults in their lives. When policymakers take as their starting point what children already know, rather than what they need to know in the future – and when they focus on ‘personal development’ at the expense of knowledge of the world – the upshot is a recipe for narcissism and ignorance. Adults, in this view, become the applauding audience in the drama of our children’s lives, our authority reduced to mere flattery.

Now, I think my kids are brilliant and all, but I also think they have a hell of a lot to learn. And for their sake, I demand more of myself, and of their teachers, than ego-stroking dressed up as educational reform.

Take the justification for putting computer skills on a par with literacy and numeracy. The press release on the Rose report put out by the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) begins with this bald statement: ‘Techno-savvy youngsters are developing their computer skills faster today, providing untapped potential to boost learning in primary schools.’ (3)

As The Times points out, in educational terms ‘it makes no sense to argue that children should be learning more computer skills early, because they are already so competent’. If kids become ‘techno-savvy’ of their own volition, surely the time at school would be better used teaching them about things that they don’t pick up with such ease or enthusiasm? But the spirit of this proposal is precisely that educators should not seek to impose upon children the things they don’t know; rather that they should take their lead from these ‘techno-savvy youngsters’ and find ways to ‘boost learning’ (presumably, the learning of the fusty, technophobic adults who are trailing behind). In the glitzy new world of the ICT suite, the child leads and the adult marvels, contributing such insights as ‘what happens if you click on this? Well done!’

The idea that schools should be transformed into an extended episode of Dora the Explorer is pretty disheartening to any adult who suspects that unlocking the secrets of the universe involves rather more than a familiarity with tabbed browsing. But the myth of the techno-savvy youngster, who is naturally a more gifted navigator of our information society than those of us reared on books and test tubes, is a pernicious one. It has become popular because it speaks to a deep-seated anxiety that adults are really not up to raising children – look how they navigate, where we fumble! Look at their intuition, compared to our pedantry! So it is not really surprising that the DCSF, with its heightened awareness of adults’ shortcomings, has jumped upon this particular bandwagon to promote its brand of child-led learning.

Then there is the question of ‘personal development’. Specifically, the DCSF press release puts it like this: ‘Children should acquire a range of personal, social and emotional qualities essential to their health, wellbeing and life as a responsible citizen in the twenty-first century – getting the right skills, knowledge, understanding and attitudes.’

Schools have always sought to do more than teach the three Rs; and the question of how they can best provide a form of moral guidance for their pupils, and what form this moral guidance should take, has been discussed perennially. But the new focus on ‘personal development’ makes clear that, nowadays, schools are expected to get increasingly involved in the basic aspects of children’s personal and emotional development – yet without even trying to engage with the difficult questions of learning right from wrong, or aspiring to be a good person (as opposed, say, to simply being well-behaved). In DCSF-speak, the idea of moral guidance translates into simply: ‘Getting the right attitudes.’

Parents of primary-school-age children will already be all too familiar with what these ‘right attitudes’ are: recycle your rubbish, walk to school, don’t bully other children. The litany is both vacuous and conformist, demanding that children (and their families) accept that there is only one ‘right attitude’ to have. I find myself trying to explain to my daughter that, actually, ‘telling the teacher’ is only one way to deal with a hypothetical bully, and I relish the prospect of introducing her to the Enid Blyton school stories, in which ‘sneaking’ was the worst thing you could do. But when ideas about right and wrong have already been perverted into narrow and simplistic ideas about acceptable or unacceptable behaviour, it’s all a bit of a struggle.

In the absence of a broader moral framework, the emphasis on ‘personal development’ simply means telling children how wonderful they are. Children are encouraged to focus on their own health and wellbeing, and to demand that adults jump to ensuring that they are optimising these. Through initiatives like the government’s Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning programme, which goes by the cuddly acronym SEAL, kids are encouraged into an obsession with their own happiness and unhappiness, and furnished with morally dubious ideas such as that acts of kindness get you prizes.

Parents and teachers have a nagging suspicion that the upshot of all this self-regarding could well be a generation of brats, who are prepared to take neither advice nor guidance from adults, and are incapable of dealing with the blows to their ‘self-esteem’ that come when other people try to remind them that, actually, they could be better. As a parent, I am bothered by the knowledge that home life, instead of being a place of relaxation and indulgence, will be the only forum in which children’s character flaws are pointed out to them along with the errors in their work, while schools get to put ‘excellent’ over everything and reward them for such ‘virtues’ as telling a teacher about a bully.

The only upside is that, despite the drubbing that parents get in government policy, most of them care about their kids enough to know that moral guidance is necessary, and that children need more than a constant diet of smiley faces. The question is whether we can keep our confidence, or whether we will be fighting for front seats at the Brat Awards.

Jennie Bristow runs the website, Parents With Attitude and is co-author of Licensed to Hug: How Child Protection Policies Are Poisoning the Relationship Between the Generations and Damaging the Voluntary Sector published by Civitas, 2008. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Read on:

A guide to subversive parenting

(1) Schools must make most of computer know-how of primary youngsters, Rose curriculum report says. DCSF press release, 8 December 2008

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Topics Politics


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