says KATE SAWYER
There is a new idea that has sprung fully formed from somewhere, like Athena from the head of Zeus. It involves 'drilling'. Now to me drilling is something you do with potatoes, or roads, or teeth. It should not involve children. The only exception is, I suppose, a fire drill (I'm trying to be fair). But the way the great educationalists have reacted to the pressure put upon us by the more rigorous GCSEs is by leaping for their drills.
It made me cry the other day. A couple of years ago I wrote a scheme of work on poetry for some top-set year eights (12-13-year-olds). It involved Wordsworth and Coleridge, but also some more modern works - 'City JungIe, by pie Corbett, for instance. We went out onto the playing field and had time to 'stand and stare'. The children finished by writing a response to an unseen poem. So, to me, this was excellent: they were taught some analytical skills, engaged with a variety of poetry and wrote some of their own. The work had to be adapted for weaker bands, but the core was there.
It now has to be adapted again, with a view to spending only three weeks in total on the unit, and with a different assessment - this time to compare two poems (another part of the GCSE). I was not entirely happy with only three weeks in the year being spent on poetry but prepared myself to be compliant. Until I was told that the children were to spend the whole three weeks on the same two poems - they were to be 'drilled' on them so that they would do really well in the assessment, which would reflect well in the data.
In a similar way we respond to the loss of coursework, with exam-only assessments, by spending longer and longer on the same texts. Many schools are now spending three years on English GCSE, rather than two (and didn't we do it in one?). So children do, Macbeth, say, once every year for three years, rather than being introduced to three different plays. It breaks my heart.
It is at this point that I ask myself if every effort made by the Government and some teachers to educate our children is to be undermined by the spreadsheet fairies. Perhaps I should have sniffed a rat years ago when people stopped talking about 'education' and began talking about 'teaching and learning'. When I queried this (sort of queried - ranted and raved about it might be nearer the truth) I was challenged on which poets I wanted to teach. 'Dead white males I suppose' was the sneering remark. Well yes, a lot of great poets are dead white males, but that does not make them any the less powerful. The reason they are still read is because they are great, not because they are dead and white. (l was allowed Shakespeare because 'he's a genius', but not John Clare.) The second-rate thinking that dismisses all of pre-20th-century literature as dead, white and male (so where does that leave the Brontës, George Eliot, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily Dickinson, et al?) also dismisses dead white male Ted Hughes as a misogynist quasi-murdered forgetting that Sylvia Plath had formed as a troubled woman long before she ever met him. And, more to the point, forgetting the work that he left.
And it is this second-rate thinking that, to me, will be the undoing of our schools. Because if you are prepared to buy into any groovy new theory, without actually thinking it through, you will never read some of the great works of literature, you will merrily pick up your own drill and aim it at the heart of any real love for your subject. 'Drilling' our children into how to answer a question, rather than tricking them into knowing how to do it through their interest in the text in front of them, will leave the next generation an assembly line of zombies, unable to think for themselves. They will be a submissive, obedient, unthinking generation.
I went into teaching because I love my subject, but also because, at its best, it is a profession that has room for energy, creativity and heart. Now it seems we must pack up those qualities and open up our 'teachers' toolkit', which will, at its heart, include a drill.