Teaching children not to think

Suzanne Moore rightly criticizes the back-to-rote-learning-the-times-table fever that has so gripped this British Government and the chaterati generally.

We could ask writers about reading, but why listen to the likes of Michael Rosen when we can bang on about phonics, which naturally enough children must be immediately tested on as soon as they get the gist? According to the Daily Mail, a government initiative to test school literacy levels will see more than 500,000 six-year-olds asked to read made-up words such as “jound”, “terg”, “fape” and “snemp”. What a perfect way to symbolise our obsession with testing. We test nonsense when we could “gyre and gimble in the wabe”. We could get kids to do what they already do – imagine words. Sorry to bring this up, this awkward issue of imagination, but having observed 22 years of state education, I see its slow strangulation.
Of course, many are reassured by this return to tradition, an education in conformity, with its refusal to teach students how to code, source, verify and interpret data, and its division between arts and sciences when it is at this crossover that some of the best thinking is being produced. All this explains the continual cracks made at media studies, which is about learning to negotiate a mediated world through something other than 19th-century novels – mad, huh? But it is an exercise in sentimentality, not a design for living for now.
The current doublespeak means that free schools are not free at all. Intelligence, the ability to connect and create ideas, the so-called thinking outside the box – these things are hardly likely when the box itself is idolised. Far be it for me to advocate a return to actual free schools where my friends’ kids learned to make a dope table, but to purchase wholesale the idea that this return to “traditional methods” works for all is stupid. Evidence tells us otherwise. As a policy, it is more about what works for politicians than what works for children.
Our political class is indeed the pinnacle of smug regurgitation. Many are the products of the very best education, and what do they desire? Only to replicate what they know, not to transform the world. As our access to information widens, our education system could open up. Instead, it narrows itself to certainties that anyone with half a brain would have questioned a long time ago. Go to school, get a good job, don’t ask what it’s for. Freedom does not come from thinking by rote. Whatever they tell you.”


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