05 July 2009

On abysmal teaching

(Apologies to people outside the UK who may not be able to access this link.)

A few days ago I watched this very interesting and mildly disturbing programme about a Muslim school for girls in the UK. You can watch the whole thing at the title link above, for the next month.

But that is not what this post is about. Follow the link and look at a few seconds eleven minutes in, immediately after the marker for the first commercial break:
Teacher: Aisha, you haven't got your uniform again today [...] Right! Can you get your English exercise books out, please?

Right. OK. It's a new topic, for this new half-term. And as we normally do for a new topic, write, "Accents and Dialects". Would you do that, please?
Aaaargh! This has got nothing to do with this being a Muslim school (or has it? Read on...) It's just awful practice.

What is the sub-text, ably communicated by the teacher? He has framed the new content in a few seconds:
This is part of the required syllabus. It is "out there". I have no idea why we have to teach this stuff. It exists only in the minds of academics and bureaucrats (and possibly a few politicians who get into such detail--but that is really my gloss). So I have to teach it. Perhaps you have to learn it, but between us we can reduce it to memorisation.
Hey! Why do you have to tell them it is "a new topic" which we treat "as we normally do"? Pupils don't think in those terms, and there is no reason why they should.

Dialects and accents? With a class like this, what fun you can have with family stories and anecdotes, and bilingual households... No. All that is immediately set aside in the interests of a desiccated (and, I bet, simplistically wrong) account to reproduce only for assessment purposes.

It is not simply that this approach is calculatedly super-meta-boring, although that is indictment enough (and just consider how much can be conveyed in 15 seconds!). It is what lies behind that...

(And here I qualify a little. I am not bothered about offending people who disagree with me. That's OK and I'll be delighted if they respond. But I do not want to generate more heat than light, and I am venturing into unfamiliar territory---so please offer constructive and informative responses for others to read in the unlikely event that anyone does respond!)

The example we saw was--assuming it was representative and not set up for the filming to condense an hour or more of exploration of experience--not merely miserable practice, but also indicative of a set of assumptions about the nature of knowledge, the role of the learner, and what counts as "learning".It suggests that
  • knowledge is something which belongs to other people; powerful people who prescribe it for the rest of us...
  • Learners are empty vessels whose own experience is of no value, whose only salvation (exam grades) lies in ingesting this external body of knowledge
This is in short Freire's "banking" model of education.

And this dogmatic model does fit with the epistemology of revelation, adopted by Christians of many persuasions and some Jews as well as Muslims. The truth/valid knowledge is "out there" (pace. X Files.) It is represented in inerrant and incontestable texts, and in some traditions they have to be learnt by heart. The most extreme examples may be the madrassahs where not only is the Qur'an the only item on the curriculum, but it is learnt by heart in Arabic even when the pupils do not speak that language.

As Karen Armstrong comments historically rather than religiously;
... in all pre-modern societies, including that of agrarian Europe, education was designed to preserve what had already been achieved and to put a brake on the ingenuity and curiosity of the individual, which could undermine the stability of a community that had no means of integrating or exploiting fresh insights. In the madrasahs, for example, pupils learned old texts and commentaries by heart, and the teaching consisted of a word-by-word explication of a standard textbook. Public disputations between scholars took it for granted that one of the debaters was right and the other wrong. There was no idea, in the question-and-answer style of study, of allowing the clash of two opposing positions to build a new synthesis.

Armstrong K (2001) Islam: a short history London: Phoenix (pp. 87-88).
The programme never got into the issue of attitudes to knowledge, and the fit with the pedagogies adopted. Pity.

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