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!