If you read only one book on education, read this one: Francis Gilbert’s preface to ‘Learning Matters’

New cover with new typeIt is my firm belief this passionate polemic is one of the most important investigations into education published in the last twenty years. Why? There are two reasons:

First, Roger Titcombe really shows you more clearly than anyone else where things have gone wrong in schools.

Second, he offers genuine, practical solutions to the problems.

This is a book both about the tragedy of millions of lives scarred by educational failure, but it also offers genuine hope: it is both a rigorously researched polemic and a guide.

There are a number of things that make Roger Titcombe’s polemical guide so unique. It is written by a teacher but it is not exclusively for teachers, although, I am sure, many will find it essential reading. It combines gritty, no-nonsense analysis with powerful personal stories that show beyond doubt that a toxic cocktail of factors have poisoned our school system.

There have been many books which have outlined the problems of our system but very few have brought together so many disparate elements into a coherent whole: Titcombe’s scope is huge. He not only analyses our school system, but he shows us how children learn, how we think, how free markets work, how marketised education is linked to social disorder and how successive governments have implemented policies that have stopped learning happening in our schools.

It’s worth here going through Titcombe’s central arguments because once you’ve got the “big picture” of what he’s saying, you’ll better appreciate the masterful way he marshals his arguments and evidence.

Throughout the book Titcombe illustrates with a number of powerful examples why our examination system, school league tables and competition between schools since the late 1980s has caused a catastrophic change in the way our pupils are taught. Put bluntly, our schools are making students stupider. This isn’t primarily our teachers’ fault but the fault of a system which encourages students to learn in a very superficial fashion. Instead of learning deeply, students are drilled to pass exams and pretty much forget everything they’ve learnt after they’ve taken them.

What is exceptional about this book is the evidence Titcombe provides to back up his points. This is no woolly liberal diatribe against exams-per-se because Titcombe argues if used sensibly exams can be a powerful tool for helping students learn in a “deep fashion”. Throughout the book, Titcombe refers to Cognitive Ability Tests or CATs for short (a form of IQ test widely used for school admissions) because they are the most reliable measure we have of students’ current cognitive ability levels. You don’t have to be a fully paid-up believer in IQ tests to agree with Titcombe’s points. Personally, I think IQ tests are not always a reliable test of intelligence in individual cases but the general picture they paint is tremendously powerful: they are a much more reliable indicator of the state of intellectual development of a pupil than most external exams, like the SATs tests administered in the UK at the moment. Most serious educationalists would accept Titcombe’s diagnosis: we have a school system at the moment that is very poor at getting children to master the challenging concepts needed to become more intelligent. Titcombe believes that intelligence is plastic: it can be increased or inhibited by the nature of schooling. Sadly, we have the worst of both worlds. We have students who pass their exams with flying colours and think they’re really clever (when they’re not) and a lot of students who have failed their exams and think they’re really stupid (when they’re not). Read this book, and learn just how inane our current exam system is: it makes for damning, chilling reading.

Many commentators – both on the left and right — have said similar things to this but not many (none I would dare to say) have joined the dots in the way that Titcombe has: Learning Matters is superb at tying together many disparate threads. Titcombe manages to show that the shift from a locally accountable school system to one which is both very centralised and market-driven has meant that many schools have chucked “deep learning” out of the window in favour of “quick fixes” to get good exam results. He points out how all of us have been affected by this change: the way we’re taught has wrought an insidious, hidden change in the way we relate to each other as human beings. We have become a society which not only has a social underclass but a “cognitive” one as well. This has made us more dependent in our lives on consumerism, achieving status through spending our money on things instead of relating to each other in meaningful ways.

This is a very brave book because it will alienate people both on the left and right. Many people on the left may have serious problems with the way Titcombe suggests that poorer communities have become dumber, while those on the right won’t like his eviscerating attack on the way a market-driven school system has eroded educational standards. It is a fearless book: Titcombe goes where no serious educational commentator has dared to tread.

Read it and weep, but also note its message of hope. Titcombe shows that it wouldn’t take that much to change things. He welcomes some of the changes recent government has made to the examination system but says that they need to go further. He points out that every teacher could defy the current predilection for superficial learning and modify their practice to teach “deep learning”. I know I’ve changed the way I teach as a result of reading this book.

By Francis Gilbert

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About @wonderfrancis

Francis Gilbert is a Lecturer in Education at Goldsmiths, University of London, teaching on the PGCE Secondary English programme. He also teaches the Creative Writing module on the MA in Children’s Literature, which is run by Maggie Pitfield and Professor Michael Rosen. Previously, he worked for a quarter of a century in various English state schools teaching English and Media Studies to 11-18 year olds. He has, at times, moonlighted as a journalist, novelist and social commentator. He is the author of ‘Teacher On The Run’, ‘Yob Nation’, ‘Parent Power’, ‘Working The System -- How To Get The Very Best State Education for Your Child’, and a novel about school, ‘The Last Day Of Term’. His first book, ‘I'm A Teacher, Get Me Out Of Here’ was a big hit, becoming a bestseller and being serialised on Radio 4. In his role as an English teacher, he has taught many classic texts over the years and has developed a great many resources to assist readers with understanding, appreciating and responding to them both analytically and creatively. This led him to set up his own small publishing company FGI Publishing (fgipublishing.com) which has published his study guides as well as a number of books by other authors, including Roger Titcombe’s ‘Learning Matters’ and anthology of creative writing 'The Gold Room'. He is the co-founder, with Melissa Benn and Fiona Millar, of The Local Schools Network, www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk, a blog that celebrates non-selective state schools, and has his own website, www.francisgilbert.co.uk. He has appeared numerous times on radio and TV, including Newsnight, the Today Programme, Woman’s Hour and the Russell Brand Show. In June 2015, he was awarded a PhD in Creative Writing and Education by Goldsmiths.
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