Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Assumptions and Motivations

There is an assumption, a set of related assumptions in fact, behind all of these observations, comments, criticisms and proposed solutions, an assumption that may not be shared by all readers. The assumption is that the purpose, the only important purpose, of education, is to prepare young people to make the most of their future in the world.  This view is certainly not shared by most of the people who create and maintain our systems of education. The main aim of this work is to encourage people to consider and come to share that assumption, but those who do not initially share it may well be rather mystified by much of what I have to say.

That assumption, so easily and regularly forgotten, is something I can never forget, because of the other major motivation of this blog, which is not theoretical but personal and practical:

I benefitted enormously, to a degree that can scarcely be overstated, by having parents who understood that hard work brings a better life, and transmitted this idea by their daily example (which is the only way that actually works). This combined with the luck of having a decentish brain, and going to very good schools (in the case of my primary school because we were Catholics, and the Grammar school because it still existed and I found a way through the 11+).

A lot of luck, yes, but that combination of circumstances should be, and could be, much more readily available than it is. Even the example, which cannot always, or even often, come from parents, but there are other people who could give that example. I have seen now a generation of children come and go, and the majority have had to settle for far less than they might have had, for reasons that do not need to exist, and without ever really understanding that things could be different.

John Steinbeck, who I quoted a few days ago, and who came to understand the art of teaching (which most teachers do not possess) said that good teachers do not tell, they catalyze a burning desire to know. An education system should not process and control children, it should inspire them, most of them, to desire and demand a future and an intellectual life which can turn them into something they never imagined they could be.


I have spent many years observing a number of different forms and systems of education, in two different countries, and reading a great deal about others, that once existed, and that exist now in other countries. In the course of those years I have identified many failings, deficiencies so great, so damaging to the people whose lives they affect, that they must be solved, and yet I have seen little or no understanding of that imperative need, or will to seek solutions, in those who are involved and in a position to do something about them.

Monday, January 4, 2016

What should not be taught in schools


The use of schools to solve other social problems that arise when children cannot easily or comfortably be supervised by their parents, causes many more problems in the schools themselves. The need to fill a complete timetable, and to follow to some degree the model of the public boarding schools, coupled, naturally enough, with the desire of government to control growing minds, led fairly quickly to the creation of subjects which should not be taught in schools at all. If they were removed from the timetable, the school day would be much more reasonable, could address its real aims more clearly, and some activities which children learn to hate could be understood as fun.

Much of what schools do is unnecessary. Many subjects should not be taught, some because they are simply a waste of time, like religion, ethics, ciudadanía and the other ways of telling people how they should behave according to some fashion or other, and some because they are far better provided in another way. Churches are always willing to instruct the young in their beliefs and codes, and sport and the plastic arts are far more enjoyable if done freely at a municipal or private facility rather than under the full disciplinary structure of a school as they now are. Within useful subjects, a great deal of time is wasted with unnecessary material and in attempting to measure knowledge, rather than provide it and teach how to use it. And of course, the biggest problem of all is that many of the people who are forced to be there are not in fact going to benefit from it, but their presence will prevent others from benefiting.

There is no reason for schools to teach religion, unless that is one of the specific purposes of the school. Otherwise, it is a waste of time. Parents who want their children instructed in their own faith, or in some other, will find plenty of people willing and able to do it for them, freeing children two or three hours a week.

Likewise sport and art, which should be enjoyable activities done for pleasure. If there were places children could go, and choose the activities that attracted them, they would enjoy them much more, and schools, and the taxpayer, would save a fortune on all the facilities that have to be replicated unnecessarily in every school in the country.

I am not, of course, suggesting that children should not study their parents' religion, or that they should not do sport or learn art. The point is that schools are a bad place to do it.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Conversation with the Natives


In their constant struggle to improve the quality of education in this country, the relevant authorities forever miss the very point of it, create obstacles when they mean to smooth progress, ignore the people who actually know what needs to be done and how to do it, pay scrupulous attention to the interests of everyone but the children, for whose benefit the system is supposed to exist, and generally create more and more regulation and paperwork to less and less effect.

So it’s quite unusual for someone in government to say something intelligent on the subject. The surprising news in this case is that President Rajoy has suggested that there should be conversation classes with native speakers in schools, to improve the level of English. This is a good idea. If anything comes of it, it will be done badly, ineffectively and at unnecessary expense, but the idea is sound.

First, some background. The focus in Spanish schools is on grammar and vocabulary, because those who decide these things lack imagination and experience, it’s much easier to justify the marks you give if they come from written exams, and it’s difficult to do useful oral activities with groups of 30 or so pupils. Some would see these as problems to be solved. In fact, they tend to be seen as excuses not to try to do things better.

The aim of the recent Education Law is that pupils who leave High School at 18 should have a B1 level of English. For those of you who understand these things, that is Cambridge Pet level, and you will recognize the problem. It is not an independent user level. It is half a language, which is no good. You can’t actually do anything with it that a company, a University, or you yourself, can use. A B1 level does not allow you to answer the interview question ‘Do you speak English?’ with a ‘Yes.’

Also, needless to say, the aspirations of government when they wave their hands about and create these documents are not always fulfilled. Most children don’t even reach the low level that is set as the target. The result is that the great majority of Spanish youngsters leave school with a very limited knowledge of English, a bit of useless baggage that has cost them thousands of hours of wasted time, and doubtless many arguments and punishments along the way. This is not the way to do things.

The idea, though, that the purpose of language is communication, is not really recognized by the system in use. Anything that changes that perception is good. It really is like riding a bike. You are more likely to reach your destination if you actually have somewhere you want to go.

Conversation with Natives

Just to clarify:

Conversation (communication) classes with a native teacher are an important part of the process of learning a foreign language. In the case of younger (preschool or primary) children, this is because the naturalness of the accent* and the prosody (primarily intonation, and this is often underestimated or not understood) contributes greatly to the way the foundation of learning is built. They will mostly be hearing native speakers in the resources used to back up the class, and on the television and in the songs they hear and sing, and the natural rhythms of a native speaker reinforce the memory and the ease of use.

For older students this is much less important, but a native speaker, one who grew up in a cultures where the language was part of life, can provide a much more interesting background to the conversation, which adds a lot to motivation, and leads to real communication.
When I say native teacher, of course, I do mean teacher, not some random unemployed graduate found on the streets of London or Dublin or San Francisco. Teaching is not nuclear physics, but it requires competence and experience.


*it doesn’t matter all that much where it’s from, or what kind of education it denotes, as long as it’s something that most of the English speaking world would understand and accept

Friday, January 1, 2016

To Dub or not to Dub…


It was suggested recently by the President of Spain that TV should stop dubbing films and series into Spanish, as this would help improve the level of English of young Spaniards.

Even though this is almost certainly true, and the experience over many decades in countries like Sweden, Norway, Holland and Germany is that exposure to English in TV programmes from a very early age is one of the reasons for the extremely high depth and breadth of competence in English, the government is obviously not “mulling” a ban on dubbing, nor would it be right to do so.

I doubt it has any authority to do it, for a start, but there are other reasons it’s a bad idea.

There is a very good dubbing industry in Spain, and many of the voice actors are better than the Hollywood people they replace. (For some reason Hollywood doesn’t require its stars to be able to communicate like normal human beings, let alone like performers). I often prefer to watch in Spanish because they do it better, and they turn down the background noise, too. “Let’s annoy the luvvies by stopping them working” is not usually seen as good politics, especially when they are actually doing a good job.

Also, although it might benefit, undoubtedly would benefit, suitably motivated youngsters, older people would probably be a little miffed at suddenly not being able to watch the TV because the government has said so.

Another point is that the key is motivation. If you don’t find a way to motivate the young to want to learn, playing around with what’s on the telly is only going to annoy people, and achieve nothing. That motivation is one of the major failings of government in regard to Education.

And another important point is that they are far too late. With digital television and polychannel platforms it has been possible for at least 13 years to watch hundreds of different series on dozens of different channels, in the original version- which almost invariably means English- if you so choose. Some choose to, some don’t. I encourage them to do so if they find they can still enjoy the programme that way, and explain why. Government meddling would cause a lot of harm and would, in practice, change nothing.


The fact that they are thinking about such things, however, and understand something about how the desired results might be achieved, is a step in the right direction.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Why do Spaniards not Speak English

It is perfectly possible to teach young Spaniards to speak English to a good enough level to study or work abroad, or work in Spain in one of the many professional fields that require high competence in English (most jobs worth doing, these days). That means B2-C1 level, for those of you who understand these things.

I know it is possible because I have been doing it successfully for years. I know why schools fail to do it, and I know why that isn’t going to change, probably for decades.

The technical probably with teaching here is that it doesn’t focus on communication. Mixed groups of 30 children, the need to justify marks, which dictates the kind of exams to be used and the material to be examined, the interests of powerful Unions that take precedence over those of children, the monumental lack of imagination and the general ignorance of those who make the laws and design the system.

It is widely recognised that proficiency in English is a basic skill, but the state system is quite unable to provide the means to gain that skill. It is not even capable of transmitting the idea it is possible to learn English well, let alone of transmitting the motivation required to do it.


As I frequently point out, not always to universal understanding, in England even the village idiot speaks English. It really isn’t so hard, but in the absence of saturation, it takes a lot of work. But it can be done, and I’m not the only one who knows how to do it. The problem is that those who think they should have a monopoly on Education, don’t know how to do it, and are not trying to find out.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Steinbeck on Teaching



"On Teachingby John Steinbeck

      It is customary for adults to forget how hard and dull school is. The learning by memory all the basic things one must know is the most incredible and unending effort. Learning to read is probably the most difficult and revolutionary thing that happens to the human brain and if you don't believe that watch an illiterate adult try to do it. School is not so easy and it is not for the most part very fun, but then, if you are very lucky, you may find a teacher. Three real teachers in a lifetime is the very best of luck. I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.
      My three had these things in common. They all loved what they were doing. They did not tell - the catalyzed a burning desire to know. Under their influence, the horizons sprung wide and fear went away and the unknown became knowable. But most important of all, the truth, that dangerous stuff, became beautiful and precious.

Teaching, good teaching that is, is indeed an art, both a creative art and a performing art. It is one of the situations in life which turns human interaction into an art form. The teacher needs to attract and hold the attention of the student, provide, at all times, an answer to the question, 'Why am I sitting here listening to this bloke?' You have to be worth listening to. And you have to find ways to communicate something difficult to understand to someone who has no particular reason to want to understand it. If you can't do that you shouldn't be teaching.

The reality of good teaching that Steinbeck remembers is a long way from 'sit down, shut up, study chapter 5, the exam's on Friday, don't look at me, teach yourself or there'll be trouble' which is the idea a lot of teachers have, and a lot of children, as they've never known anything else.

If the teacher doesn't know why the children should learn what he's teaching them, they won't learn it. Learning should be cooperation, not attrition, not conflict, not the ticking of boxes, not getting through the day. Give me children who want to learn, who are keen and sharp and have enthusiasm for life, the present and the future, who understand the importance of learning not in a dry, theoretical sense, nor a profound, mature, analytic way, but in an immediate, unreflecting, this-clearly-matters-now kind of way. Where to find such children? Give me good teachers, and I'll make them for you.