Fighting Words, Prescribed Learning and a Race to the Top

The incredible ignorance of many of those who shape the governance and content of education in this country causes great despondency in many folk – in those who work in education and also those who have a genuine interest in the prospects for our young people.

Today, in the Observer, David Mitchell writes an excellent piece about history and, as Michael Gove calls it, our “rich island story”. How outrageous is it for any government to dictate the chronological facts that our children and young people should learn?

“Professor David Abulafia of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, in a proposed curriculum for the think-tank Politeia, has come up with 31 events that every schoolchild should know.”

As David Mitchell says, “Leaving aside the terrifying question of what right any central authority has to decide which are the most important historical dates and facts, this shared “island story” lacks generational demarcation.”

David Mitchell explains that social interaction is reliant on shared experiences but if our entire shared experiences amount to the same 31 dates and the same “12 castles” are we really experiencing the breadth of learning that is possible?

Having just returned from Japan, and recognising my own complete ignorance of the history of that country prior to Pearl Harbour, I am ashamed that despite having a history A-level, I know relatively little about the rest of the world other than the terms and conditions of the Versailles Treaty.

It is terrifying to think what significant dates might be deemed to be the most important in history from the perspective of a Tory government – May 4th 1979? April 1968, when Enoch Powell delivered his Rivers of Blood speech? Surely Aneurin Bevan’s introduction of the NHS would make the list, or perhaps this might be superceded by Andrew Lansley’s “modernisation” of it?

We continue to await the outcome of the curriculum content review with baited breath.

Yet the UK is not alone in the interference of government in education and the never-ending drive to raise standards.

Yesterday, I watched a fascinating television interview between the wonderful Jon Stewart of the Daily Show and the US secretary of State for Education, Arne Duncan.

Arne Duncan and Jon Stewart debate education

The interview took place on 17th February, and it was partly a discussion of the interventions that had been imposed on teachers in the US.

Heavily burdeoned with the usual acronyms, it makes one wonder what happens in the offices of politicians and bureaucrats around the world as they try to think of an innovative and catchy phrase to promote more of the same narrow learning for our children. “Every Child a Reader”, “The Big Write” – all very worthwhile in their own right for developing literacy skills with children but so limiting and constraining as well.

No longer does “Every Child Matter”. Nowadays, “Every Child Achieves” – a subtle yet distinct change in terminology which alters the breadth of what “matters”.

In the States, they have two initiatives currently upsetting the teaching fraternity; “Race to the Top” (top of what?) that supercedes “No Child Left Behind” – a bipartisan literacy initiative introduced by George W. Bush.

Have these initiatives helped in any way or have they stymied the creativity and ability of teachers to teach according to the knowledge they have about the individual needs in their class?

Stewart made this point to Arne Duncan, causing schools to teach to the test frustrates teachers rather than freeing them to be creative”.

He continued. “Benchmarks give a mistaken impression that teaching is a science. Teaching is an art.”

Very well said, Jon Stewart. Teaching is an art, as well as a professional discipline, if only it’s allowed to be so.

You can read more here, but sadly cannot watch the clips unless you are in the USA.

Here is an interesting quote from the Washington Post.

“Stewart told Duncan that his mother tells him that the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative is exacerbating the standardized testing obsession of No Child Left Behind and making it harder for teachers to creatively do their jobs.

This is happening because the administration’s policies encourage states to link teacher evaluation to standardized test scores, which not only has lead to more “teaching to the test,” but also an expansion of standardized testing into areas besides the traditional math and reading areas. I ran a guest post last year from a high school student who wanted to know why he had to take a standardized test in his yearbook class as his district field-tested 52 such tests in all kinds of subjects so that teachers in all subjects could be evaluated by the results.”

The point is that however many government initiatives in however many countries are imposed on the teaching profession by non-experts in education, the fundamental learning that should be taking place will not happen until someone finally listens to the educationalists, and realises that good pedagogy (and not a catchy slogan based on the micromanagement of classroom activity through rote or regimented learning) is the only way to improve and promote real learning.

Initiatives such as “The Big Write” may have their place but only if the whole child is being educated and the creativity of teachers and students alike is being respected.

Returning to David Mitchell and his history theme – do we want all of our children to write in exactly the same way and on precisely the same topics without an ounce of individuality?

Do we need them to start sentences with “Wow words” such as “furthermore” or use words such as “ergo”;- words that they would never use in speech? By all means let’s expand children’s vocabulary – but not simply to get higher marks in SATs tests because “Wow words” and flowery language are what examiners have been told to look for and give higher marks for.

If we follow the precise prescription and the prescribed formula, then where is the individuality, let alone the development of personal and interpersonal intelligences? What are we all going to have discussions and debates about if we can only learn what is dictated, rather than what we are interested in?

When there is so much information at the press of a button, how can we possibly dictate which dates and linguistic phrases should be deemed useful and valuable and therefore taught didactically to our children?

Another article in the Observer today talks about yet another initiative in Ireland.

Roddy Doyle has established “Fighting Words”

“ This is Fighting Words, a workshop set up by the author Roddy Doyle in 2009 to encourage creative writing in students of all ages across Ireland. Since its inception, the centre has seen several thousand come through its doors. The majority are from local primary schools in Ballybough, an economically deprived area of Dublin, but other students have travelled hundreds of miles. Fighting Words, which relies largely on volunteer staff and offers all its lessons free of charge, has proved so popular that sessions are booked up a year in advance. “The interest is huge,” says Sean Love, the executive director and co-founder. “We’re obviously filling a gap that is not filled in formal education.”

Whilst we may not convinced about some of the ‘ten tips’ for being a good writer, or indeed the name of the project, it’s good to see that such creative initiatives are taking place.

However, this raises a couple of points.

Firstly, why is it up to a charity to do this essential work?

Secondly, for those who have been around in education for some time, is this really something new?
Some of us were having weekly sessions of ’emergent’ writing and inviting authors into schools a generation or two ago. Writing workshops were fun, challenging and innovative, and worked, enabling all children to work at their own level with differentiated, individualised learning.

It was challenging work, but it was incredibly worthwhile.

Returning to the name of this project, perhaps it’s right after all. Perhaps we should be ‘fighting’ for the rights of expression, for being able to use the words that we want rather than those that are imposed upon us. Perhaps teachers in the USA should be fighting for the right to be creative professionals as much as we would hope educationalists might do in this country.

The governance of education and the professionalism of teaching have to be given back to the people who know what they are talking about, who perhaps had “Fighting Words” workshops at the heart of their literacy practice over thirty years ago, who felt then and feel now that the child’s needs and interests are the key to their learning.

Play area and slide built by children at Kinokuni Children's Village.

Surely, it’s now time to fight for what we believe in educationally. If we’re only clear, as a profession, what children need and what’s to their long-term benefit. “Raising standards” cannot be simply about higher attainment in standardised tests and exams,  as any unemployed graduate will surely tell you.

If anyone needs further clarification as to what education ought to be about in the 21st Century, and also what it ought to not be about, please have a look at the Ken Robinson video produced by the RSA, which was referred to and linked to in the previous blog.

Learning at Kinokuni

About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at or see our website at
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