“Miss Matthews, these texts aren’t exactly very inspiring!”- Year 10 pupil, Galaxy High.
Last week, I blogged about the low expectations Galaxy High has of the behaviour of its students; this week, I want to go a step further and suggest that low expectations are so entrenched in the system that even the curriculum we teach perpetuates poor standards. The rhetoric of high expectations continues to chime throughout the halls of my school and I wonder once again: is it just talk?
The philosophy that underpins the curriculum is steeped in low expectations. The English Language non-fiction exam is a prime example of how good intentions can result in a substandard education for our students, and I will take examples from this to clarify my viewpoint. However, I am beginning to think that the entire curriculum is plagued with the very same philosophy that has sucked the soul out of English lessons. Two key underlying principles of the curriculum that trouble me are:
1. That it ought to be relevant to young people’s lives.
2. That it ought to be engaging for young people.
I want to argue that by emphasising the importance of relevance and engagement above all else, we are treating children as weak minded and therefore incapable of tackling a genuinely challenging and rich curriculum. Furthermore, this is an inaccurate understanding of what actually interests children, and what will help them to become well-rounded members of society. By structuring the curriculum around content that we think students will find interesting, we are trapping them within their own narrow horizons, and risk not equipping them with the tools they need to escape them.
“Our curriculum needs to be relevant and engaging for our students.”- Head honcho, Galaxy High.
This misguided fallacy directly contradicts the chat about high expectations that gets banded around so much. Teachers that have genuinely high expectations of the students they teach believe in expanding horizons through great subject content. Whether this means teaching era-defining speeches in non-fiction English lessons, or the mysterious story of the square root of two in maths, there is a wealth of knowledge out there that can encourage children to be curious about the world they live in. Kids know none of this stuff when they start school. They probably wouldn’t learn much of it at home or through the pursuit of their personal interests either, yet we design what we teach around curricula that prioritses engagement and relevance.
This week, I was faced with a very real dilemma. I was about to embark upon teaching the non-fiction exam to my year 10s in preparation for their mocks in a few weeks. The exam is utter nonsense. Students are given leaflets, magazine articles and web pages to analyse, and the topic content covered is always supposedly ‘relevant’ to them. However, I do not believe that this is what teaching non-fiction should be about. Non-fiction writing is an extremely powerful tool for communication. It has the power to inspire and influence others, and used well, can instigate change in our society. Therefore, surely I should be helping my students to understand that by providing them with the best pieces of non-fiction texts that are out there. Important political speeches, enlightening autobiographies and ground-breaking journalism can really help students to understand the true power of language, and can help them to form their own opinions about this tumultuous world in which we live. Moreover, these texts serve as an efficient vehicle for building cultural and historical knowledge, which I believe to be fundamentally important.
With this in mind, I began planning my scheme of work for this term. Within about twenty minutes of sourcing speeches by Elizabeth I, Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill, it suddenly struck me that this was not necessarily going to help them to pass their exam. The exam does not test students’ contextual understanding of the significance of texts through time, but rather their ability to make ‘perceptive’ comments about the use of alliteration in a headline.
My dilemma, therefore, was this: do I teach to the exam, helping them to get a fairly decent grade and therefore ‘improve their life chances’ or do I teach them a rigorous curriculum that will expand their horizons? Perhaps I could strike a balance between the two: teach the skills through decent content (which I know many teachers do, and I respect them for that), but it is a very fine balance indeed, one that I am not sure I have yet refined. Time is precious, and the more time we spend discussing the various nuances of the Spanish Armada and the speech at Tilbury, the less time we have to practice writing PEE paragraphs.
Yes, they might be interested in what food Tinie Tempah enjoys, but has anyone stopped to think that they might also be interested in things they don’t already have a pretty extensive knowledge of? My students know loads about Tinie Tempah, but they don’t know who Margaret Thatcher was. The problem with continuing to teach content that is ‘relevant’ to them is that we never end up teaching them anything new.
An insult to children
Do we really have such low expectations of children that we don’t think they could cope with challenging and culturally significant content? Children in the private sector are regularly introduced to rigorous and culturally rich content, and they manage it just fine.
“The won’t engage with it unless it is relevant to them.”
This is another excuse that comes up time and time again. Making content relevant and engaging is perceived as a panacea in challenging schools, particularly when dealing with silly ‘kinaesthetic’ boys. What I find most frustrating about this approach is that it underestimates what actually interests children. Believe it or not, kids from council estates can read, understand and engage with an extract from Plato, they can learn to complete the square, and they can be fascinated by Galileo’s discoveries.
We are afraid of losing kids in lessons. OFSTED make it quite clear that students must be engaged if we are to achieve a decent lesson grade, but our understanding of what engages children is misguided. In the same way that they do not need to be ‘up and about’ using flip-cameras every lesson to be engaged, they do not need to be given a dull article about the RNLI in order to find English interesting. In my experience, the texts offered by the exams actually have the reverse effect. Many students hate these exam style questions with a passion, demonstrating the low expectations the exam board can have, not only of how to expand our students’ horizons, but of their interests, too.
Children should be inspired and pushed in school. The prioritisation of engagement and relevance above all else is a low expectation of our students. They do not need to be educated about things they already know; this presumption is both patronising and insulting. They need to be given the opportunity to learn about life beyond their own back yard and to be inspired by the best ideas that culture has given us.
Our students deserve a rigorous and enriching curriculum. Despite having the best of intentions, the focus on relevance and engagement does little to help our students to break free from the shackles of socioeconomic disadvantage.
It’s about time that we give children some credit and start to take them more seriously. We must expect more.
Courtesy of Tessa Matthews at Tabula Rasa