The death of teaching: A race to the Bottom?

What classroom and teaching practices might we change in order to achieve better lessons and better teaching? In the final part of his series, Joel Wirth looks at key stage 3 in SecEd, which he fears is too often anodyne and pointless…

At 4:10pm, the key stage 3 curriculum review session began (apologetically requesting just 15 minutes meeting time like the poorest of poor cousins). Ten minutes in and passions were running high on the subject of Shakespeare for year 7.

Macbeth was proposed, a lone voice advocated Henry V, the majority wanted to stick with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which had been trotted out in all its donkey-headed, fully-resourced-PowerPoint-a-thon glory for at least three years.

Understandably tired of endless years of change, voting teachers opted for the status quo. The logic seemed to go that year 7s are small, both physically and intellectually, and somehow “closer” to the world of fairies and periwinkles which had been equated with childhood because – well, just because. They will read a bit and then write something. The clock ticks round towards home time…

I can’t resist this as among the finest examples from the many I could cite of the intellectual Race to the Bottom (I hope those of you familiar with the work of the Bard saw what I did there) that characterises so much of students’ experiences at key stage 3.

Most English teachers know that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a complex play about creation and artifice, about love and its many delusions. “Doing it” in year 7 more often than not reduces it to a fairy story, and not a particularly good one. Bereft of its intellectual heft it is anodyne and, like so much of key stage 3, pointless.

And so we are left with the bizarre spectre of students studying the industrial revolution in year 8 by producing a series of posters. Or, in RE, exploring spirituality through drawing a labelled picture (Tick. Smiley face stamp. Target. Flick). Or reading the play of Frankenstein in English so that we can somehow claim to have “done Frankenstein”. Frankenstein’s a novel exploring issues that have profound and lasting relevance beyond its mere plot. If we think it’s worth doing, we should do it properly – exploring those themes through honest, intellectual graft – or not at all. 

The ubiquity in key stage 3 of activities and practices such as these reflect the cowardice and the intellectual compromise which is so characteristic of school life for the average 12-year-old.

We were all children once and many of us are parents. I remember wishing away the sluggish days of being 13 so that I could get to the pastures of 18 and beyond. But I never felt that being 13 was a preparation for being 16. And as a parent, I want my 11-year-old’s school to see that child for what they are, not for what they will one day be when they actually count on the figures. Being 13 is not a preparation for being 16: it’s about being 13.

Ask those fundamental questions. Not “what should we do with year 7 in the spring term?’ but “beyond mere ‘facts’, what do we want students to understand by the end of the spring term and how will we decide what to teach to deepen that understanding?”

Read the full article and what you should do to push your students further The death of teaching: A race to the Bottom?

Is Key Stage 3 pointless? Teachers taking the easy option? Time to shake it up?  Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

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