The pleasure of finding things out

This is the title of the collection of short works by Richard Feynman (1999), undoubtedly one of the twentieth century’s most brilliant theoretical physicists and original thinkers. (He died in 1988). This is a great general interest read as Feynman had many talents including a great disregard for pomposity in all its forms. He enjoyed the friendship of people from all walks of life.

Here is the BBC program that features Feynman himself.

Is the ‘pleasure of finding things out’ to be confined to Nobel Prize winners?

I am sure it must not. I am certain that it is a universal human characteristic to take deep pleasure in gaining understanding and intellectual  development from the application of curiosity. Watching my pre-school grandchildren conducting a bug-hunt in the garden convinces me that such curiosity is not only an innate characteristic of the human species, but it is also too precious to be dulled or squandered by schools driven by the testing needed to provide the performance data that drives false ‘choice’ in a marketised education system.

On 21 November 2013 OfSTED published a report entitled, Maintaining curiosity: a survey into science education in schools.

They also found that dull teaching – accompanied by a lack of practical work in the subject – was putting pupils off the science subjects.

In some schools, not enough time had been set aside in the timetable for pupils to do practical work.

Girls, in particular, were likely to ditch physics – with only 11,390 going on to do it in the sixth-form in 2011 despite 159, 745 getting two good GCSE passes in science.

In addition, a minority of secondary schools were ‘pre-occupied with tests and examination results as ends in themselves’ rather than aiming to improve pupils’ deeper knowledge of the subject.

The report points out that getting good grades in science is not necessarily the same as “getting” science.

All this is true but the principles are general and relate to all learning. Practical work is not just necessary for developing ‘practical skills’ but for promoting cognitive development that spills over into all subjects and all learning.

OfSTED are right that, ‘getting good grades in science is not necessarily the same as “getting” science’, but they omit to make the connection that this is true for all subjects. But you have to read between the lines to make the most important inference of all.

In my book ‘Learning Matters‘ I argue for a broad and balanced curriculum for all pupils up to at least the age of 16. This is because if curiosity is the driver of learning then the full spectrum of possible exploration should be available as a resource to all pupils.

I also believe in ‘plastic intelligence’. This implies a dynamic interaction between perception and the mind, leading to the enhancement of general cognitive abilities. When a pupil gets absorbed and mentally challenged in (for example) a historical study topic, then she also gets better at maths and science, and vice-versa. This is a powerful argument for maintaining subject breadth in the school curriculum for as long as possible and certainly at least up to the age of 16.

Eclecticism as a quality was greatly valued and apparent in the lives of our great Victorians in diverse fields of human endeavour. It is in need of restoration in our schools.

The knowledge gained from an eclectic education is important at all ability and attainment levels. Not only do we benefit from well-educated employees and professionals at all levels but even more so from well-educated mothers and fathers.

The problem lies in the populist suggestion that school students should be divided into academic/non-academic streams at 14. This is to be a ‘Tech Bacc’ route to give ‘less academically able pupils a meaningful qualification’. This policy aim was repeated by Labour leader Ed Milliband’s speech at the 2014 Labour Party Conference.

In my view such a policy would be a disastrous retreat to the era when ‘non-academic’ pupils attending secondary modern schools ceased general education at 14, compared to ‘academic’ pupils in grammar schools who took GCEs at 16.

What does ‘non-academic’ mean? There is no distinctive level of performance in any test that can validly divide a population into academic and non-academic streams at any prescribed level let alone the 50th percentile as Labour appears to be suggesting. All you can say is that pupils with lower standardised cognitive ability scores generally find academic studies more difficult. But does this mean they shouldn’t be allowed access to them?

Pupils are ‘turned off’ learning by inappropriate and undifferentiated teaching methods, not by the subjects themselves. What about technology and the arts? Are these subjects academic or vocational? Are we to assume that our most academically able pupils should be directed away from cooking, dance, drama and art, or that less academic pupils don’t need to study and understand history, geography, literature, science and a foreign language?

How should a potential ‘Jamie Oliver’ be directed at 14 years old?

The task of the education system should be to raise educational outcomes for all, so producing a better educated and more intelligent population at every level. What is wrong with having well educated plumbers, actors, motor mechanics, shop assistants, footballers, tennis players, care workers etc. as well as more broadly educated teachers, doctors, lawyers and engineers?

Both requirements are achievable within a comprehensive school system provided all schools enjoy genuinely all-ability intakes of children. Is the Tech Bacc to be an alternative to GCSE, A Levels or to a Degree? Is Labour wanting to reform the KS4 school curriculum, Further Education or Higher Education?

If Labour wants to promote higher quality vocational education and training post-16 then this I support. However, I oppose all vocationally specific teaching pre-16. There is simply too much ‘pleasure of finding things out’ standing to be lost without a truly high quality, broad and balanced education for all. Some argue that abolishing GCSE need not mean streaming at 14. But worryingly a lot of politicians from all the main Parties want to take us back to the grammar school/ secondary modern split, but at 14 instead of 11 and within the same school.

When league tables and floor targets drive teaching and learning then there are always far reaching adverse consequences with regard to pupil curiosity, morale, progression and deep learning. This applies to more than ‘a minority of schools’.

Increasing diversity and competition in the school system creates just such perverse incentives and it therefore follows that the consequence is likely to be not just poor quality science teaching but a general decline in the cognitive ability of our school leavers.

Michael Gove really did want to raise academic standards for all, but he hadn’t a clue how to do it and he didn’t  realise that it is impossible within his league table driven, marketisation ideology.

His successor, Nicky Morgan, while  lacking Gove’s misapplied intellectual depth, is just as clueless about the malign outcomes of marketisation.

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