The Ministry of the Bleeding Obvious


Having spent much of my youth watching Monty Python, I am good at spotting things that fall within the jurisdiction of John Cleese’s ‘Ministry of the Bleeding Obvious’. This came to mind when reading a recent Harvard Education Letter which spoke about research by the (American) National Research Council into ‘Deeper Learning’, which discovered that ‘abilities such as critical thinking and problem solving are associated with positive outcomes in the labour market, health and civic engagement’ (Harvard Education Letter, March/April 2013).  Furthermore, the research found that ‘deeper learning’ could be developed by encouraging questioning, engaging learners in challenging tasks, providing supportive guidance and feedback, motivating students, and using formative assessment.

Well, duh!  (As one of my eight grade students might have put it.)

I wouldn’t disagree with anything that the researchers have found;  what bothers me is that the same insights could have been gained by having a conversation with just about any of the teachers with whom I have worked over my career.  They know ‘deeper learning’ when they see it, and they know it happens when students are encouraged to build on their natural curiosity, unstressed by the fear of failure, and supported and guided in constructing knowledge from their personal experiences.  Of course, I can’t rule out the possibility that my colleagues were a uniquely talented sample of teachers;  however, while I know that I have had the good fortune to work with some of the best in the profession, I also know that their views are broadly representative.

Unfortunately, while feeling depressed about the fact that these research findings were presented as a revelation, I then found that in the UK the ‘Ministry of the Bleeding Obvious’ has been taken over by the ‘Ministry of the Just Plain Stupid’.  Michael Gove, the UK Minister of Education, is now planning to replace GCSE exams (the ones they take at 16) with something called ‘I –levels’, which will be calibrated with an 8-point numerical scale, and eliminate course work.  Ahhh, the nostalgia!

I can almost feel sorry for Michael Gove.  He has the problem of finding a way to restore English education to the magnificence of the past, when school exams were tough enough to identify those pupils in the selective Grammar schools who had learned to conform to the expectations of their teachers, and who might therefore be granted a scholarship to a Public School to learn alongside true gentlemen, and thence to proceed to university.  (True gentlemen, of course, have the right instincts bred into them, and so could be admitted to university by less rigorous methods than examinations;  women, of course, didn’t need education at all.)  This all went wrong in the seventies, with the introduction of comprehensive schools and the increase in the number of universities, which resulted in a large part of the population realizing that they, too, could aspire to a degree.  At about the same time so-called ‘educators’ (all of whom were clearly troublemakers, probably hippies and possibly communists) introduced ideas such as course work, collaborative learning, a de-emphasis on exams, and the possibility that all students might have the potential to succeed if allowed to.

The result was a nightmare.  University places were numerous enough to create demand, but not numerous enough to meet it, and so admission became even more selective.  Out went the practice of interviewing all candidates, as examination results provided an easy, cheap, and above all defensible method.  Unfortunately, the changes of approach in the content and assessment of the school curriculum meant that a far higher proportion of students were succeeding, getting good grades and clamouring to attend university.

Faced with the problem of a curriculum that is producing more students who succeed in school, but insufficient university places to accommodate those who qualify, what solution is obvious to Gove?  Of course, reduce the number of students who succeed in school!  Hence the need to return to a model that depends entirely upon examination results, (excluding all of those with different forms of intelligence), and restore a curriculum that is likely to deter anyone with imagination or creativity.

Footnote:  When asked about the fact that a raft of education experts, including his own previous advisor, consider that his last set of proposed curriculum reforms were not well thought out, simply declared that the experts were wrong, and were all Marxists!

A letter from a frustrated four-year-old to a future employer

Dear Future Boss,

I’m writing to you because I’m confused and need some advice. I don’t know what industry you work in, or what my job with you will be. Of course, it’s quite possible that my job doesn’t exist yet (when you were four who wanted to grow up to be a web designer?)

I get to watch a lot of television, because both Mum and Dad work, and there aren’t enough places in pre-school. I really like the cartoons, but I must admit that after watching them for hours I do feel as though another bit of my brain has gone numb. Anyway, recently the TV was left on the news channel, and I heard someone talking about what employers (like you) will be looking for in future employees (like me). She said that the important qualities will be things like curiosity, imagination, adaptability, a ‘can-do’ approach to solving problems, persistence in the face of difficulty, the ability to communicate and collaborate with others, and a willingness to take risks and to learn.

I got very excited when I heard this, because I’m really good at all of these things (and I mean really, really, REALLY good at them.) I learned to talk just by listening to other people, and I learned to walk by constantly falling down, I love playing and exploring with other kids, and I am always poking around looking for new experiences and new things to try out. (I used to be even better, before the cartoons). An educator on the TV said that it’s because my brain has evolved as a machine designed just for communication, collaboration, curiosity and learning. (But he also said that I have to keep using these skills or I will lose them. Cartoons don’t help, apparently.)

But Mum only lets me go to playgrounds that have been officially approved as completely safe and risk-free, because she says I’m too adventurous, and I can’t have a tree house, let alone help my Dad build one, because I might hurt myself, and I’m not allowed to explore because I might get lost. So how I am supposed to practise my curiosity and risk-taking?

I’ve really been looking forward to going to school, but my sister says that school is boring, because you’re not allowed to talk, but have to just listen to what the teacher tells you, not learn whatever it is you want to find out, and you have to memorise lots of stuff for tests (which my sister says is pointless because all of the stuff is on her smart phone anyway, but she’s not allowed to use that in school), and you’re not allowed to work together much or help each other, because that’s called cheating. So how will I practise my imagination, communication and collaboration?

And my brother tells me that a lot of the fun stuff that he used to enjoy after school – clubs, sports, music and camping trips– don’t happen anymore because of liability issues and teacher contract disputes. But he also says it doesn’t really matter, because he wouldn’t have time for them now anyway, because Mum makes him take extra lessons after school to make sure he gets good enough grades to get into university. So how will I practice my adaptability, persistence and imagination?

This is why I’m confused. It sounds as though the educators know what I’m good at, and how to make the most of my capabilities, and it sounds as though those capabilities are exactly what you employers say you need. And yet my parents and the politicians who decide what happens in school seem not to be listening, but act as though they think that curiosity and imagination and collaboration and risk-taking and independent thought are all bad things. So here’s my real question: are you employers, educators, politicians and parents ever going to get together and do something to feed the insatiable appetite I still have for learning all about this exciting and fascinating world in which we live, or should I just sit back and enjoy the cartoons?