Building a nation of automatons

Nothing to see here, move along – Dad rant about education.
I read this letter to our Prime Minister, David Cameron, from a worried mum and it struck a chord with me.
 My gripe is not with my daughters’ school, nor their teachers, but with the with the government curriculum.
 I have the utmost respect for my daughters’ school, their teachers and the way they try to teach them.
I went to my kids’ bookshare this week. My eldest had four maths exercise books packed full. And half of one art book. Half. For almost a whole academic year.
I am not advocating that they spend all their time painting pretty pictures rather than doing maths. I am advocating that they learn creative thinking. How to solve problems laterally and creatively. To come up with solutions that they might not hitherto have dared to express, rather than regurgitate the obvious answers to facts such as 2+2=
There’s creativity in maths. Just look at fractals or architecture. Perspective/angles, shapes, fractions (composition).
Instead of asking kids what the speed of light is, (after the fact has been taught them), ask them how do they think they could travel as fast as the speed of light. I bet you’d get some fantastic answers. (Incorrect though, obviously.)
I want my children to question. And to offer up ideas as to the solution. This is how we will create the next generation of thinkers and leaders.
But perhaps we won’t. Because they probably won’t pass their sats.
Both of my children are creative. Both take singing lessons. One takes clarinet lessons and writes stories and makes her own books at home. They love reading and don’t have to be asked to do so. They both have a passion for animals and conservation. They both love to express themselves through art and sculpture. They love nature and history. And they both just got a distinction in their Musical Theatre grade 2 exam.
And they both love exploring what our wonderful world has to offer.
What they hate is: maths and English (yes, even though they love writing).
You know what I tell my daughter when she’s writing a story at home? Forget spelling, grammar and punctuation. Just get your thoughts and ideas down. We’ll get some gubbins [me] to put the apostrophes in later.
The first thing the government axes when times are tough are the arts. They are narrow-minded idiots. In my view, the arts are more important than maths. For those who haven’t seen it before, this is my mantra:
Without the arts, we wouldn’t have language or the written word. Without the arts, we have no culture. Without culture, we have no society. Without society, we have no civilisation. And without civilisation, we have anarchy.
Which, in itself, is paradoxical, because so many artists view themselves as rebels to society. To me, artists aren’t rebels, they are pioneers.
Perhaps, most importantly; without the Arts, where is the creativity that will solve the world’s problems going to come from? Including economic and scientific ones?
The government pontificates about building a nation of leaders through education. But, in reality, all they are creating are automatons who only know how to regurgitate answers to known facts. What they aren’t doing is educating children not just to answer questions, but to ask them.
This is the original letter from Beth Beynon courtesy of Andy White.
Dear Prime Minister,
Today my daughter got her Year 6 SATS results. Level 4 across the board which, my years of teaching experience tell me, is absolutely spot on for Year 6.
So can you tell me why she has spent today in tears? Why she’s lying on her bed sobbing, because she knows she’s not good enough?
There’s a part of me that barely has the energy to write this. To ask you why you insist on putting 10 and 11 year olds through a system that takes nothing of child development or good pedagogy in to account, or why you put relentless pressure on schools to up their expectations, so what was once seen as good progress is suddenly a failure. But why bother? Why bore you with analogies of weighing pigs that nobody fed? You won’t listen to highly qualified education experts, or even people who, you know, actually teach. So I’m under no illusion that you will listen to me.
I do however want to tell you what is happening in my house tonight.
My funny, intelligent, artistic daughter has received a message today.
She’s average.
The government has told her so.
And that’s not good enough.
The fact that she has rhythm in her soul, a stunning singing voice and takes people’s breath away when she dances, the fact that she thinks about the meaning of life and loves to ponder the great questions like why are we here and what our purpose could be, or the way she cared for her dying Grandmother – painting her toe nails and singing to her, the way she puts her younger sister into her own bed because she woke with a bad dream. These things that make the whole person that my daughter is. It’s all irrelevant.
She’s just average. And that’s not good enough. You’ve told her so.
Another one bites the dust.
Thing is Mr. Cameron, my daughter is wise to you. At eleven she has learned that SATS are just a game.
“I’ve not learnt anything this year Mummy,” she told me during the harrowing and stressful weeks leading up to the SATS “Just how to pass some stupid test for the stupid government”.
From the mouths of babes, Mr. Cameron, from the mouths of babes.
And so here we are. Your SATS results are in. You can number crunch to your heart’s content. You can order schools from best to worst, rank them, categorise them and make them work for you. Numbers are clever , aren’t they? Look what they did for bringing all those children out of poverty! Clever old you.
And meanwhile my daughter will go to sleep tonight despising a government that has squandered a year of her education so they can tell her she’s no more than average. And that it’s not good enough.
Oh, one more thing. She brought home her Grade Three ballet certificate today. She got a distinction.
But I don’t suppose you’re the slightest bit interested in that.
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10 Comments

Filed under Art, Children, community, Creativity, Education, Ideas, Innovation, Inspiration, Philosophy, Politics, Writing

10 responses to “Building a nation of automatons

  1. Well said, David. In fact, brilliantly said. Your daughters are lucky kids to have a father like you.

  2. A good point well made, as always. As a Dad I find that letter heart breaking. As someone who loved art and creativity in school – still do – it’s quite annoying. I’m glad I live in Wales where we don’t have SATS; though that’s not the be all end all of this situation…

    • Thank you. I heard on the radio the other day about an initiative to use philosophy in primary schools as a means to encourage and enable creative/lateral thinking/problem solving. It sounded very good. Obviously, had a few callers who thought the whole thing was nonsense.

  3. Argus

    “Political power,” said ol’ Mousey Dung, “is from the barrel of a gun.”

    And politics is all about acquiring power over the treasury and military, no? And once in power, of course, they have to hold on to it for as long as possible—letters from the occasional emotional (‘hysterical’) housewife just won’t cut it. So what will?

    Perhaps the answer is private schools (until ‘they’ realise the threat and ban them). Or well developed supplementary home education, as in ‘the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world’ — but be careful, be very careful: the independent kid that stands out makes a fine target.
    The Japanese have a saying to the effect that ‘the nail that stands up must be knocked down’; perhaps your politicians have taken this to heart?

    Sadly it will get worse and I see no refuge.

    • I think you make valid points. And for the very reason you mention, I doubt that we’ll get P.R. in the UK anytime soon. When the Tories (or Labour) can rule with less than 30% of the voting population.

      • Argus

        What I see as the answer is democracy.

        Not as we have, not as the Americans have (despite the headstart the theoretical “Government of the people, by the people, for the people” gushed by Lincoln might have given them).

        With the exception of Switzerland every ‘democracy’ has ended up with government of the people, by the party, for the party … not good.

  4. So very true. Well put. Wish I had the ability to write a letter with diplomacy, it is a skill I lack.

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