I first published this article around 7 years ago (2008?) and published on a previous site of mine. With a little tweaking, it still seems pertinent…
I keep returning to that old chestnut about how schools are not as good as they used to be. Kids today can neither read or write nor recite their times-tables and they leave school with either a poor or inappropriate skills set. Apparently employers are concerned and review of educational policy often highlights such inadequacy. It’s certainly the kind of pub talk we hear regularly enough but, to tell you the truth, I am somewhat confused. I have had a chronic awareness of such rhetoric ever since I started teaching 20 years ago which suggests that the focus of such concerns now constitutes a fair proportion of our current population. I am confused because not only I am not entirely sure if the evidence I see around me supports this assertion of failure of our schools but the evidence to the contrary seems to me palpable. For me there have been changes to our social practices that have occurred over the last twenty years or so that suggest that education has been extremely successful providing the kind of capable consumers on which our society thrives. The evidence for this is just so obvious that I do not understand why it seems to never be referred to.
When I was young our the newsagents sported a rack of magazines, maybe five rows high with say fifteen magazines across? Today, when I wheel my trolley past the magazine racks in Tescos there must be more than two hundred different titles, the majority of which must be viable sellers if they are to warrant such shelf space. Does this suggest that folk buy more magazines than they did when I was younger? Similarly, I also remember when taking my English Literature ‘A’ level my tutor providing me with a book list. When I asked where I might buy them he simply remarked, “Smiths used to be a book shop”. But now Smiths has not only recovered some of its former identity it also has to compete with a number of other bookshops in the town. Finding someone who would sell me the Canterbury Tales I am sure, would not be as difficult a task now as it certainly was when I was seventeen. Books seem to be good business. Perhaps the binding or the print or the paper is not of the quality that was standard in my youth, but the words are accessible enough. I can even choose to purchase online, where, in direct competition with the high street booksellers there are several thriving sites dedicated to selling books. I have to conclude that books are better business now, and that must mean that more are read, surely? We might discuss the relative content of the average person’s reading material, but then, I am not sure that many of those who have insisted to me that ‘kids cannot read’ will have worked their way through the classics. So, might it be true to say that however true or persistent the common perception that schools are not as efficient as they once were, over the last few years the amount of reading material sold has increased?
Let us leave Tescos and wander across the car park to B&Q. On the way we might pass the window of Currys where a row of LCD and plasma TVs might be showing Tipping Point or Celebrity 15 to 1, or any one of a number of the current rash of knowledge based game shows. We pass Argos where the parlour game versions (albethem electronic) of the TV game shows adorn the windows. It certainly seems that having knowledge is fashionable if TV producers and games makers market products that rely upon the fact.
On entering B&Q we find racks and racks of power tools. Drills, angle grinders, bench grinders, jig-saws, alligator-saws, routers, electric screw drivers, portable circular saws, cross-cut circular saws, mitre circular saws, bench circular saws, band-saws, arc welders, compressors, generators, electric chisels, planers and so the list goes on.
Now, it may be difficult to attribute any increase in the sales of books specifically to English Teachers or the proportion of seven million viewers that scream ‘Henry V’ at Chris Tarrant on a Saturday night to History teachers, but how on earth does anyone learn what to do with a carpenters router let alone how to use it? Until recently the router was considered quite a specialised piece of equipment that required the user to have received some form of training. Not only can they be tricky to set up and operate, but they also take some figuring out to determine when it is appropriate to use one and what method of operation will be required. Do children get taught how to use a router in school? Very few. Routers are potentially very dangerous pieces of equipment and if they are used in school at all it is only with close supervision during a GCSE project work. If you wanted to buy a router a few years ago then you might find one or two in a DIY store such as B&Q. If you wanted the real McCoy, not just a DIY light edition, you would need to go to a specialist supplier who would expect you to be a trade customer. Today, in B&Q, you might find seven, eight or more different models of router ranging from the cheap and cheerful (and believe me power tools these day can be very cheap) to the seemingly nuclear powered. I can buy them in Lidls, Wilkinsons and Aldis as companies in China are racing to sell us cheap routers by the thousands.
Back in the mid-80s when I was training to become an Art teacher I was seduced into becoming a (then) CDT teacher by the RSA’s Education for Capability Scheme. Creativity and self-initiated learning were key issues in the scheme, which, it must be said, was just one of a number of contemporary initiatives in the same vein. When I became a CDT teacher I joined a band of brothers and sisters with a mission to fill the world with people who possessed the confidence to address any practical problems they decided to tackle and who would take control of their environment and shape it to suit their own preferences and needs. Now, I do not know if anyone ever asked the question, “Did we do it?” Did anyone ever reflect on whether the mission was achieved? But, sometimes, when I stand in B&Q and watch the, belt sanders, orbital sanders, detail sanders, palm sanders et al, rolling through the tills I fancy that we just might have. When I watch DIY makeover programmes on TV I cannot help but fancy that many of the designers, interior decorators and carpenters that present these programmes are likely to be of an age that means they were in receipt of the capability centred initiatives of the early 80’s.
I have nearly finished my shopping trip, just one more store to visit, PC World. I cannot resist looking for the network routers, of which the store has a number of types of different manufacturers and specifications. To save time I am cutting and pasting from the paragraph above…
“Until recently the router was considered quite a specialised piece of equipment that required the user to have received some form of training. Not only can they be tricky to set up and operate, but they also take some figuring out to determine when it is appropriate to use one and what method of operation will be required. Do children get taught how to use a router in school? Very few.”
What do you know, it fits! Actually the network router would not have existed in the school days of many purchasers, but we still have the question to ask. How have folk come to know what a router is, why it is needed and how to set it up? The public it seems, is acquiring information from somewhere that identifies the need for these products. There are no popular TV programmes suggesting how they might ‘make-over’ their computers and most of the purchasing public will not have received instruction on what this technology can do for them from school. Yet PC World, along with its competitors, has aisle after aisle of brand new technological gizmos, cables and internal gadgetry that is just flying off of the shelves. It seems to me that we have quite a bunch of capable and sophisticated consumers.
How much credit can schools take for this? If we agree that the current high level of DIY sophistication and power tool capability is real, then how did the consuming public come to acquire it? If it is not attributable to schools directly then we are left wondering if the Design Based Technology experience is worthwhile. Why have a curriculum subject to teach something that folk acquire naturally? If we dare assign credit to schools then we must accept that this is significant and a splendid verification of educational aims. Pupils are growing up with the capability to identify targets and objectives then research and self-learn the new skills and concepts required to achieve their objectives. They must be evaluating, reviewing, planning and budgeting. If we dare conclude that the growth in magazine sales has something to do with the need to acquire knowledge about things like routers (of whatever kind) then we have to acknowledge that the comprehension skills required to plough through such specialised and technical written material are also significant and a credit to English teachers and departments.
Unfortunately, although we might be able to credit the Technology Department as contributor to the success of the DIY and computer stores, I am not so sure about ICT. We can be sure that the average consumer was not taught to use a network router or complete a graphics card upgrade at school. Can we honestly say that over the last decades ICT has contributed to pupils ‘learning for life’? As the National Curriculum moves us away from the ‘copy this spreadsheet’ paradigm has anyone noticed that computer sales and the popularity of the internet have been more than holding their own without any great emphasis on pupil centred learning in the classroom? I do not suggest for a minute that ICT or Computing should not seek to take its own share of the responsibility for developing such capability. On the contrary, it is vital that computer-based subjects clearly define their territory, and there’s the rub. The ‘mission’ to transform Design and Technology has been a painful one; as those who wrestled with the initial version of the National Curriculum orders for Technology will know. But we took comfort in the fact that an ever-growing majority of Technology Teachers had an implicit understanding of the value of this transformation. We may see, if we look, that the rewards for this effort are now evident in society at large. Having moved from Technology to ICT, for what it is worth, to continue with the ‘mission’ to promote child centred learning, I have had problems spotting the required debate and am surprised at just how uncommon any debate about the ‘vision’ of ICT, IT or Computing in a holistic sense is. I have come to doubt whether the need is appreciated by all but a tiny minority of practitioners. The rewards are clearly there to be had, but unless we begin to discuss in earnest the significant pedagogical issues that are provoked by the NC we will be fooling ourselves if we think we are providing any more value than the curriculum offers without it. Computing and ICT deserves and requires its own special place in shaping our pupils, and then society.