Evidence from brain research makes most of the educational debates of the past fifty years seem trivial and uninformed. We now know that learning is a physical process, based on making connections and building networks between brain cells, bound together and taken forward by the development and application of memory. Whatever builds these neural networks contributes to learning, and whatever neglects or interferes with them, prevents it. For an introduction to the work, and a description of its development over more than a century of Nobel-Prize winning research, see Erich Kandel’s In Search of Memory, and for something more concise, Sarah-Jane Blakemore and Utah Frith’s The Learning Brain.
On the positive side, this research is allows us to base teaching on evidence rather than fashion or conviction. For example, Dr Matt Davis of the Medical Research Council has shown that children recognise shared words in new languages more quickly than words with an unfamiliar origin. With a caveat against over-relying on the link because of a (small) number of false friends, the finding provides scientific endorsement for one aspect of the approach of the late Michel Thomas. He taught almost no vocabulary in his introductory language courses that the learner did not already know, at least in part, via the Latin link that runs through most European languages, and enabled adults to learn new languages quickly, even if they had previously failed.
We have evidence of the effects on brain structure of learning music, and can expect more, particularly in mathematics, where a person’s problem solving skills depend in large measure on the knowledge and understanding they bring to the task.
On the negative side, this new evidence challenges the beliefs on which many people, on all sides of politics, have built their working lives and views of the world, and which they will not give up. Our opponents still attribute educational success and failure to privilege and social inequality. Pierre Bourdieu’s idea of “cultural capital”, which he linked to wealth rather than intellect, offers a Marxist endorsement of the idea. The “secondary modern comprehensive” suited their case very well, as the lack of challenge in schools ensured that only those whose parents invested personally in their education could succeed.
These parents were generally better off, sometimes from inheritance, and, thanks to grammar schools, because their own intelligence and education had made them higher earners.
Either way, education was seen to benefit one section of the population at the expense of the rest, and this had to be altered, even if it meant holding back the brightest. C4’s “Educating” series has now shown the issue three times, in Harlow, Yorkshire and Walthamstow. It is, for those involved, a matter of principle, and their principles are different from ours. Jonny Mitchell’s “I can’t, and I won’t,” to the pupil he had unfairly suspended, reminded me of Martin Luther’s “Here I stand. I can do no other”. He still doesn’t understand that the root cause was his failure to protect his pupil from bullying, but perhaps “I can’t, I won’t,” applies there too.
As we approach the end of this parliament, our major reforms are in the balance. Changing the curriculum and examinations is a lengthy business, and has been made more difficult by the delaying tactics of our opponents. The opposition of many senior figures in teacher training to basing research on “what works” is undiminished, and they have persuaded Labour to oppose the involvement of the National College for Teaching and Leadership in educational research, just as its first major project, on maths, is beginning to have an impact.
Labour is still committed to the micro-management and coursework that have driven teachers to distraction. After the pugilism of Ed Balls, the two education spokesmen they have put up have said next to nothing, but from their point of view, this does not greatly matter. All they need to do is sit things out.
There are two bright spots as we approach the New Year.
The first is the work I mentioned in my last column on the teaching of writing, by Ros Wilson and, I now find, Alan Peat, both of whom tackle the underlying problems of building up language and control that have prevented children from doing their school work properly. They have marketed their work directly to schools, bypassing teacher training and the ideologues in the National Association for the Teaching of English. Schools across the country, from the Highlands to Cornwall, are responding with enthusiasm.
The second is the opportunity presented by the survey of teachers’ workload, an issue that has nothing to do with the length of the school day or with holidays. Labour’s paperwork requirements, for planning and coursework, were an outrageous imposition and a colossal waste of teachers’ time. I admired the headteacher I worked with recently who said “I won’t do it to them,” but she is in a minority, and is taking a risk when inspection is still dominated by paperwork and spurious data.
Many headteachers, having complained about national curriculum level descriptions for years, have responded to their abolition by keeping them on for their own convenience. Some have even invented new ones.
Nicky Morgan may well have only one chance to make a significant change before the election, and this is it. By hook or by crook, she must cut the paperwork, and make sure that headteachers and inspectors base their judgements on direct and informed assessments of pupils’ work. If she can do this – and it will not be easy – she will strike a blow against bureaucratic ignorance and give teachers a very good reason for voting Conservative.