Thursday, 30 October 2014

The Motivations of Pupils

I was talking the other day about the motivations of my students. In fact my pupils come in various kinds. I was referring there to the students of the Academy I run in the evenings. For several years I have also taught in a high school which is ‘concertado’, that is, privately run but largely publicly funded.

The pupils at the Academy, nearly all school age, between 5 and 18 years old, usually know why they are there and, and the older they are the more likely they are to know it. The younger ones are sent by their parents, and their motivation is more the atmosphere we create for them than any sense of the importance of what they’re learning, but older children know perfectly well what they are doing, even if they don’t always feel like coming to class. But this group is naturally self-selecting, as the less motivated drop out and parents with less appreciation of its importance don’t send their offspring in the first place.

The school is a different matter. I was a high school teacher for some years, but in private schools. These last three years in what is effectively a state school, for my purposes here, have not exactly been a revelation, but they have been instructive in many ways.

A lot of teenage children simply don’t realize that they could aspire to a life economically better than that of their parents, and that school is part of the route to that life. They expect to be what they see their parents to be. I am aware that we, at the school, also do a poor job of transmitting the possibilities, but it is a difficult task. By the teenage years the idea of what they are, of where they have come from and what they might become, is set in stone, and if they sometimes go beyond those limits in their imagination, they don’t see those dreams as a possible reality.

The school overlooks the main square of this little city of mine, a place where retired men congregate on warmer days, to put the world to rights and remember other times (we call that section the Moncloa), people like me congregate some evenings to drink beer and also put the world to rights. Children gather at weekends to just sort of be, recently there is a group of young lads has taken to practising break dancing in the evenings, to the delight of the younger children. Bats and birds flit throw the branches of the trees, faceless barmen come and go keeping things moving, and all of this fuses together into a fluid  whole which is how we interpret life here. But I digress, I’m a polemicist here, not a narrator.

 There have always been the gypsies, drunks, junkies and mentally incapable, begging or just hanging around. It’s one of the best places because it’s where the people are. But in recent years there has been a large increase in ‘normal’ beggars, people who are on the streets through no fault of their own, except that they placed too much faith in their ability to do one thing and one thing only. They are mostly tradesmen or workmen who found that what they had been doing for years, the means they had always used to keep their families and pay their bills, and to allow themselves to live, was no longer required. And they have nothing else to offer the world.

I sometimes ask a class to think about what they have seen in the square on the way to school, and to wonder about the people who beg in the square, whether they could ever be like them. They assume they will never be hopeless drunks or drug addicts or mentally ill, and they assume that they will have some kind of trade or skill. It is hard to make them see that many of those who are on the street through no fault of their own thought the same thing. They are not doctors and engineers and trilingual secretaries, these beggars, they only had one thing to offer and suddenly it is no longer needed. The mistake they made, they made at the age of the pupils I’m dealing with. It was not to take advantage of their chance to get a better education while they could. It doesn’t get through to the ones who most need to understand it, because their background does not allow them to see themselves as more than they are now.

Most of them will muddle through, and get along in life ok, with hard work and a few setbacks, but some will not, and the reasons will be the decisions they take now, decisions they were not aware of making, because they didn’t know they had a choice.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

English Around Europe

Brett Hetherington, over at Standing in a Spanish Doorway, prints this map, without comment. The information is taken from the Special Eurobarometer 386 (PDF) and the map was compiled by Jakub Marian. Although the data seem to be from self-reporting, the methodologies used by the survey are standard on their own terms and the confidence intervals seem to be well-defined. Also, they’ve been doing this for a long time and there seems to be no political pressure to bias the survey.

All I really mean is that I am prepared to accept the results as broadly true, and to use them as a starting point for what I really want to talk about.

Spain has the poorest score on the chart, and I sort of think I know why this is, at least why it is so low. Schools do not teach children English. They say they do, they may think they do, but they do not. The final year exams in high school, and the university entrance exams, are pitched at a B1 level (Cambridge PET), which is not an independent user level. That is, even those who achieve that level and pass these exams well, have spent 3, 4 or 5 hours a week over the course of 12+ years, in order to learn half a language, which is no use to anyone. They have been wasting their time and it would have been better to study something else in those hours.

The 22% who can hold a conversation in English (let’s assume it means a B2 level, or Cambridge First Certificate, though in practice it probably doesn’t) have almost all acquired that level by attending private academies, hiring private tutors, spending summers in the UK or Ireland, or some such means. They, and their parents, have the motivation to find ways to learn English outside the schools, because they know they have to.

That motivation is a lot more than the realization that they will need English to advance professionally. It involves going out in the afternoon day after day and sitting in yet another classroom forcing yourself to pay attention when you are fed up with studying and there are many other things you would rather be doing. That isn’t something teenagers do lightly.

And it is the motivation that matters, not the means. If you have the motivation you will find the means. Not all my students have professional, comfortably off parents, but they all have parents who understand the importance of learning English, who have aspirations for their children and who can transmit the motivation to work hard. In fact, if all parents understood how important education is, and what it can achieve, they would be storming the schools, and stringing Ministers and bureaucrats from lampposts for making such a terrible mess of it.

English matters (which is very useful for me, otherwise I’d have to get a proper job) and it still is not well appreciated by people in general. But in the world of Engineering, international commerce, legal departments of large companies, the STEM areas of Academia, even in the hotel and tourist trade, if you don’t have an independent user level of English, at least a B2 level, employers won’t even look at you. You are no use to them. In some areas it is now the C1 (Cambridge Advanced) which sets the standard. Without out you are nobody. And this reflects the way things are done. I an international company a firm will not ask to talk to an English-speaking sales manager, or wonder how they’ll communicate with the engineer who’s come to look over the project. It’s just assumed that you can do it. It’s a basic tool, like being able to read reports and answer your email without help.

Whenever I visit those countries which score highest, and my experience coincides with the figures in the places I know about, I ask people how they learnt English. Most don’t even remember. They have always known it. But something you hear a lot is that they watch television in English. From the cartoons they see as toddlers to the kids’ series, the teen dramas, the detective series, the love stories and the blockbusters, the output of Hollywood is unmediated by local voice actors. This is one way that English becomes a natural means of communication to them before they even realize it shouldn’t be. It would, at least, be a start, and now with cable and TDT it’s easy for parents to switch their children into English. But again, motivation. And it’s only a start, of course.

Incidentally, the Spanish dubbing industry has a very good bunch of voice actors who frequently improve the films and series they dub, since Hollywood actors don’t seem to learn to speak any more. I hate to suggest that they must lose their jobs for the sake of the children, but it would not be a bad thing.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Steinbeck on Teaching

"On Teaching"
by John Steinbeck
      It is customary for adults to forget how hard and dull school is. The learning by memory all the basic things one must know is the most incredible and unending effort. Learning to read is probably the most difficult and revolutionary thing that happens to the human brain and if you don't believe that watch an illiterate adult try to do it. School is not so easy and it is not for the most part very fun, but then, if you are very lucky, you may find a teacher. Three real teachers in a lifetime is the very best of luck. I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.
      My three had these things in common. They all loved what they were doing. They did not tell - the catalyzed a burning desire to know. Under their influence, the horizons sprung wide and fear went away and the unknown became knowable. But most important of all, the truth, that dangerous stuff, became beautiful and precious.

Teaching, good teaching that is, is indeed an art, both a creative art and a performing art. It is one of the situations in life which turns human interaction into an art form. The teacher needs to attract and hold the attention of the student, provide, at all times, an answer to the question, 'Why amd I sitting here listening to this bloke?' You have to be worth listening to. And you have to find ways to communicate something diffficult to understand to someone who has no particular reason to want to understand it. If you can't do that you shouldn't be teaching.

The reality of good teaching that Steinbeck remembers is a long way from 'sit down, shut up, study chapter 5, the exam's on Friday, don't look at me, teach yourself or there'll be trouble' which is the idea a lot of teachers have, and a lot of children, as they've never known anything else.

If the teacher doesn't know why the chidlren should learn what he's teaching them, they won't learn it. Learning should be cooperation, not attrition, not conflict, not the ticking of boxes, not getting through the day. Give me children who want to learn, who are keen and sharp and have enthusiasm for life, the present and the future, who understand the importance of learning not in a dry, theoretical sense, nor a profound, mature, analytic way, but in an immediate, unreflecting, this-clearly-matters-now kind of way. Where to find such children? Give me good teachers, and I'll make them for you.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Assumptions and Motivations

There is an assumption, a set of related assumptions in fact, behind all of these observations, comments, criticisms and proposed solutions, an assumption that may not be shared by all readers. The assumption is that the purpose, the only important purpose, of education, is to prepare young people to make the most of their future in the world.  This view is certainly not shared by most of the people who create and maintain our systems of education. The main aim of this work is to encourage people to consider and come to share that assumption, but those who do not initially share it may well be rather mystified by much of what I have to say.

That assumption, so easily and regularly forgotten, is something I can never forget, because of the other major motivation of this blog, which is not theoretical but personal and practical:

I benefitted enormously, to a degree that can scarcely be overstated, by having parents who understood that hard work brings a better life, and transmitted this idea by their daily example (which is the only way that actually works). This combined with the luck of having a decentish brain, and going to very good schools (in the case of my primary school because we were Catholics, and the Grammar school because it still existed and I found a way through the 11+).

A lot of luck, yes, but that combination of circumstances should be, and could be, much more readily available than it is. Even the example, which cannot always, or even often, come from parents, but there are other people who could give that example. I have seen now a generation of children come and go, and the majority have had to settle for far less than they might have had, for reasons that do not need to exist, and without ever really understanding that things could be different.

John Steinbeck, who came to understand the art of teaching (which most teachers do not possess) said that good teachers do not tell, they catalyze a burning desire to know. An education system should not process and control children, it should inspire them, most of them, to desire and demand a future and an intellectual life which can turn them into something they never imagined they could be.

I have spent many years observing a number of different forms and systems of education, in two different countries, and reading a great deal about others, that once existed, and that exist now in other countries. In the course of those years I have identified many failings, deficiencies so great, so damaging to the people whose lives they affect, that they must be solved, and yet I have seen little or no understanding of that imperative need, or will to seek solutions, in those who are involved and in a position to do something about them.

This work attempts to identify the major problems of our education system, to persuade the reader that they are, indeed, serious problems, to explain how they have come about, and to set out such solutions as the writer thinks may be introduced in practice.


Education is a privilege. A good education, like good health care, safe streets, freedom to trade (and certain other freedoms), are of such enormous importance to quality of life that a society which does not have these things is considered seriously deficient by those of us who do enjoy them.

I shall say it again- Education is a privilege. You wouldn't think that to see the way it's treated by large numbers of children, their parents, their teachers and the governments that control much of it, but it is. It is an enormous privilege because it allows you a great deal of freedom to work in more varied and more lucrative fields, and to choose where you do it, to think and understand, to enjoy art more fully and appreciate the world and man's place in it more deeply, to particpate more widely in civic life, to have power over others if that's what butters your parsnips, and generally you are more likely to be and feel free (for some value of free) if you have a good education.

The basic value of education is simply to be able to make a living, and it was for that reason that churches and charities began to educate the children of the poor (well, there were other reasons, too). And it was largely for this reason that governments began to offer basic education to everyone. Other motivations came quickly into play, too, other advantages were discovered by those who controlled and administered education, and even by the subjects (or should that be the objects) of it.

Where there are sufficient resources to entertain the young for longer than is necessary to provide the basic tools for bootstrapping themselves into the world, it is natrural to try to offer the pleasure of learning, at least the chance to discover it, and some of the tools for understanding the world more deeply and enjoying it more. This is also a privilege which I would like to see everyone given the chance to have. So, in theory, would our governments, administrators and teachers, because they say it frequently, but they don't know how to make it happen.

It is impossible to know exactly what knowledge, skills, training, cultural background and analytical ability anyone might need or want or be able to take advantage of. The basics must be offered early, and and made attractive. It is much easier for people to work out what they need to learn when they value learning and associate it with a better future.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

The Biggest Problem of All

In a comment to the first article here, Vincent refers to ‘the thing [I] clearly deplore.’

I am not certain that he means exactly this, but I should state clearly at the start that the thing I most deplore about education is the fact that it is compulsory. I shall return to this again and again, as it is probably the most important point of them all, and there are many arguments heard in favour of compulsion, which I shall need to address.

My antipathy to compulsory education is not a political position, it is not based on ideology or some unpleasant experience of my own, but on many years of observation of what compelling all children into schools has meant in practice.

Forcing children to attend schools, rather than offering education and encouraging its use, has led to a vast waste of resources on people who cannot or will not benefit from it, to the direct detriment of those whom the resources, in time, competence, equipment and so, could benefit, but do not. Compulsion not only wastes a great deal of everyone’s time, it also creates an atmosphere which is not conducive to learning and advancement, it obscures the real reasons for seeking and providing education, and it discourages able teachers from entering the profession.

All of this is very bad indeed for the people who are trying to improve their chances in the world, for those who enjoy learning for the sake of it, and for the rest of us who have to pay for it, and eventually to try to find them employment.