January 10, 2016

Education success? What drives it? It's 'expectation'

Dr Clive Dalton

Prof Sir Kenneth Robinson
It was watching a TV interview with Sir Kenneth on the Aljazeera news channel that got me going, especially when he related that at his primary school days in a working class area of Manchester, it was traditional for everyone to fail their 11+ exam. Nobody was expected to pass - so they didn’t!

But by some ill fortune (he got polio) which ended up as good fortune as he got some coaching from a teacher for his 11+ exam and passed.  The rest is history! Google him for his teachings.

His life’s work in education has been to promote the simple concept that given the opportunity, anyone can succeed. We are not all born dummies.

Looking back
The TV interview and his extensive writings brought back frustrating memories of my days at our village school in Bellingham in Northumberland, when every pupil at age 11 was faced with the 11+ exam which allowed them to go to a 'Grammar School' and effectively determined their future. This had been standard practice for decades in UK.

We Bellingham kids of Church of England parents went to the Reed’s Charity School, and kids from Presbyterians and Methodist parents went to the village Council School.  Catholic kids of course went to their own school, and there was strict segregation between each school’s staff and pupils.

The Reed’s school was closely linked to St Cuthbert’s ancient church where all of us had been christened, and were supposed to attend under the close eye of the vicar – the Reverend (later Canon) W.J. ‘Daddy’ Flower.  The school was the other side of a high stone wall from the church and all its ancient gravestones - including the legendary 'long pack'.

St Cuthbert's ancient church next to the Reed's School

In all these small country schools, there was an infants' teacher (ours was Mrs Mary Forster); then a junior teacher (we had the disciplinarian Jean Milburn), and then pupils went into the seniour class of the Head Master (ours was Joe Lumley). So the Head Master (always a male) was in charge of pupils from age 10 until they left at age 14 to join the local work force.  At age 18 they could escape from the area when they became eligible for two years military service.   Sadly during two world wars, many joined up never to return.

The 11+ exam
All we kids knew was that if you passed the 11+ exam, you were  'brainy’ allowing you to go to the  Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School at Hexham, with no fees – and maybe be rewarded with a bike as well.  But if you failed you stayed at the village school with all your dummy mates, to leave knowing your times tables, basic arithmetic like adding up money, how to read, the Ten Commandments off by heart, and traditional songs and poetry.  You also knew how to keep a vegetable garden. 

On leaving school at 14, there was plenty of work for the boys down local coal mines or quarries, work on the Council to maintain the roads, and on farms or on the Forestry Commission. For the girls there was working in shops, domestic service for the local toffs, and office work for some.  So why need a Head Master worry about teaching any more than the bare minimum needed?   

At the Reed’s school Joe Lumley was smart and used the big lads in the class (I remember Bill and Tom Forster, Bill and Cliff Charlton, Fenwick Daley and Jim Bell) to teach us younger ones how to run the garden allotment.   They also helped to fill in our time playing football or cricket on a very uneven ‘rig and furrowed’ field owned by Jackie Potts of the Fox and Hounds hotel.  These big lads saved Joe from providing any tuition by filling in our class time.  We had very little sports gear.

There was no way Joe gave us any extra tuition for the kind of questions that would appear in the 11+ exam.  And in fact, when the day of the exam arrived it came as a surprise to many of us, and one of my fellow pupils (David Armstrong), reminded me recently (70 years later!) that he was actually at the school allotment when the exam was taking place.  

Joe must have decided that the exam was not important enough to call him back.  David was never popular with Joe anyway and he had many strappings to confirm this.  David’s father Barty Armstrong owned and managed Hareshaw coal mine so Joe must have assumed David would end up down there hewing coal.

Photo of David Armstrong (left) and Clive Dalton, two of Joe Lumley's many Bellingham Reed's School failures, 70 years after their 11+ exam.

Joe Lumley’s legacy
I remember getting at least two strappings from Joe – one when Jean Milburn sent me to him from the juniors to be dealt with for turning around in my desk and hitting the girl sitting behind (Dorothy Brown).  She was sewing and stuck her needle in my backside to see what happened.  My evidence in defence carried no weight with either Jean or Joe, but there was plenty weight behind Joe’s strap on both hands!  Jean normally doled out discipline with her 12 inch ruler but for major transgressions she sent us to Joe.

There must have been over 10 of us each year who qualified to sit the 11+ after the war, and only one studious pupil in my age group (Gilbert Nichol) passed. In decades before that, I can only remember hearing of three girls (Joan Forster, Eileen Thompson and Margie Burn) who ever went to Hexham Grammar School from the Reed’s school. Eileen's brother Tom failed his 11+.

 In my age group when I sat the exam after the war in 1946, I remember all the others boys who failed were David Armstrong, John McPhail, Alan Pick, Kenneth Pick, Alan Storey, Les Armstrong, John Lamb and Alan Forster.  Alan's two older brothers Bill and Tom both failed when their sister Joan passed. Willie Burn failed along with his older brother Doney, and Willie Reed and his older brother John failed, as well as John Lamb and his older brother Billy. 

Among the girls who failed around my age were Sylvia Armstrong, Dorothy and Pat Brown, Meenie Hall, Jeanette Bell, Veda Smith, Phyliss Brown and Isobel Armstrong.  Sylvia as well as brother Les had two older brothers (Athol and Goodwin) and her sister Hazel who all failed.

 The Bellingham Council School under Head Master W.J Cairns was a bit more successful, as were some other village schools up the valley at Falstone and Kielder - but not by a big margin!  Mr Cairns's son Bernard passed as did the local pharmacist's son Peter Cordiner. The girls seemed to do better at the Council School over the years.  From memory the girls passing were Margaret and Gladys Batey, Mary and Sadie Colling and Jane Turnbull. 

Joe Lumley - Champion of failure
So without doubt, Joe Lumley’s pupils at the Bellingham Reed’s school topped the 11+ failure league, and he probably never asked himself why, or was even the slightest bit concerned about us. Rather than question his own performance (which is not a popular practice by teachers anywhere), it would be easier to conclude that all of us kids from the village working class parents were thick and not worth worrying about, based on the fact that there was plenty of manual work in the area for pupils where academic merit was not important.  So any interest or extra effort by Joe to get any of his class to Hexham Grammar School was clearly not a goal.

Joe was much respected by Daddy Flower as a good Christian, and gave him the responsibility of reading the lessons at church each Sunday.  He probably didn't know that we used to recite these words - under our breaths:

Joe Lumley is a very good man
He goes to church in Sundays
He prays to God to give him strength
To wallop the kids on Mondays

 Daddy would not be concerned about our academic achievements.  His role was confined to the spiritual care of us attending Sunday school, and then church each Sunday to become good little Christians, making his job easier for when he had to answer for us at the Day of Judgement when the sheep were separated from us goats!

Reed's School Sunday School trip c1934. Daddy Flower in right front row.

Mother’s work paid my fees
Three of us who failed (me, David Armstrong and John McPhail) were fortunate as we had parents who cared about education, even if Joe Lumley didn’t, and they were prepared to make great personal sacrifices to find a secondary school that would take us, and then find the money to pay fees and lodgings. John McPhail's mother sadly passed away suddenly so John had to stay on at the Bellingham school.

My parents not having had a secondary education, saw the advantages of having one and were prepared to scrape together enough money to pay the fees for a secondary school.  They had lived through the slump, and saw that an education was an advantage in getting employment.

Joe Lumley would certainly not be interested in the hours of domestic service my mother put in on my behalf to pay my fees. He must have cost her hundreds of hours of hard work about which she had plenty of experience as Head Housemaid at Chesters in Humshaugh, before marrying my father who started working on the railway at Humshaugh after surviving the horrors of WWI.  But mother could well have done without the sacrifice and long hours thanks to Joe Lumley's neglect of our education.

Skerry’s College
My brother (seven years my senior) and other pupils of his age from other schools up the valley who failed the 11+ were able to go to a fee-paying secondary school in Hexham called the Tynedale High School (THS). I remember Lawrence Dagg from Tarset and Tommy Thompson from Bellinghan Council School going to the THS, but it had closed by my time so the next option was to find a school in Newcastle upon Tyne. 

There were some very good ‘posh’ schools in Newcastle (e.g. The Royal Grammar School and Dame Allen’s), but the fees were too high and so were their entry qualifications.  You had to be bright to get in, so the last thing they wanted were North Tyne dummies!

Fortunately Skerry’s College had an option that accepted pupils into a class called General B,  who couldn't even pass the entry to the school’s secondary stream.  General B was for real dummies and I was one of them. We came from a wide range of schools from mining towns on Tyneside and further into rural areas.  But it gave us a chance to see if we could make it into the secondary stream starting school proper in Form 1.  Most of us who went into General B in 1946 passed, mainly because they worked us so hard.

Starting at Skerrys, I had many hangups.  The first was the disgrace of not getting into Hexham Grammar School, and then the fear of not being able to keep up with the pressure of a new school in Newcastle with new subjects that I had never heard of. And then there was the constant fear of failing my mother who was slaving away to pay my fees.  Added to all these was the constant reminder by the family ‘seniour aunt’ that I had to do as well as older brother Geoff had done.

Skerry’s College was a basic ‘cram school’ in what had been a three-story Victorian house in the middle of Newcastle.  It had another layer build on top when it was made into a school.  There were no grounds, only the pavement outside the front door, and sports were not part of the curriculum. When class numbers overflowed, they found us dark basements in near by houses in Eldon Square to occupy. This had once been a very posh area of Newcastle before the war, but with all the iron  railings on each house ripped out for the war effort, it never recovered it's former glory. 

As well as the secondary stream for School Certificate, the school ran a commercial stream for shorthand, typing and book keeping.  The two streams ran totally separately.

Comprehensive schools
Progress arrived in Bellingham and the North Tyne valley in 1950 when a large ‘modern’ or ‘comprehensive’ school was opened to replace a number of the small village schools up the North Tyne valley.  There had been one in Hexham for many years with another at Haydon Bridge, which made an effort to cover farming in the curriculum.  Pupils from up the Tyne valley were transported to Bellingham each day by bus.

This was a saviour for so many North Tyne pupils, mainly because the school needed many teachers, which spread the risk on one teacher like Joe Lumley having a disastrous effect on the future of a class of 30-40 pupils. Joe must have retired at this time as did Jean Milburn who lived till she was 90.

What makes success?
Not having studied the mysteries of educational theory or psychology, I had always wondered what was the secret to success in learning.  After the tutor training we did at The Waikato Polytechnic I was non the wiser.  

But then I talked recently to a teacher from a Hamilton secondary school (not private) about what made their school such a success with over 2300 students from a wide area of both urban and rural New Zealand.  Their students’ achievements over the years have been outstanding, and have made  outstanding contributions to New Zealand society and the world.

My question to him was simple – what is the secret of the school’s success?  I was prepared for a long boring waffly reply, masked in layers of corporate speak, as when you think of all the variables involved in learning and teaching, and running a large school and its business and much more – you would not expect a one-word answer.

I got a one-word answer - ‘expectation’!  I had to think deeply about this as I assumed it couldn’t be that simple.  This simply means that you are expected to perform to the best of your ability without having to be reminded, cajoled or threatened all the time.  The whole place has to exude ‘expectation’.

Achievement is expected and this comes from the effort YOU are prepared to put in.  Your effort will be helped and encouraged by everyone around you – if you want it.  This is from both teachers and fellow students, and even down to the domestic staff and the groundsmen.  The Principal or Head Master at all times exudes this expectation in all sorts of ways hard to define – both verbal and non-verbal.  There’s never any question about this.

So how can this NOT be the case in all schools as it’s such a simple concept?  Sadly there are schools that have not clicked on to it, like a secondary school I visited regularly looking for recruits for our agriculture courses at The Waikato Polytech. 

The overworked career’s teacher told me that she had to almost hide all the careers information in a corner of the library, rather than on display in a special ‘careers’ room’ the school had developed under her care, as any students being seen going in there were ridiculed by their peers. The culture of ‘expectation’ had clearly been killed off at this school, which was so sad as it was in an area screaming out for improved education.  Teachers at that school must have had a massive impact on this situation and they must have been happy to live with it.

Easy to fix - why not?
You would think that it would be so simple to fix – so why is there rampant failure with 40% of New Zealand 15-year-old students now leaving school illiterate, and unable to do simple maths like measuring or giving change without the aid of the cash register.This is a national tragedy, but the bigger one is that nobody in the education bureaucracy knows how to fix it, or it would have been fixed years ago.  You never even hear much talk about this state of affairs. 

Politicians (and especially the Minister of Education) defend their government’s education policy by quoting how much more money they have spent on education each year, and highlight innovations like paying better teachers more, and rotating them around schools to help other teachers with problems.  Most teachers see this as theory guaranteed to fail.

So despite the fact that today’s young folk are all wizards with modern technology, literacy and numeracy and the ability to communicate are not improving.

The 40% failures
We had years of these low-achieving students coming to The Waikato Polytechnic from around 1960 to 2002 to do a farming course, and although many eventually left the industry for a host of reasons led by poor employment conditions, others became very successful farmers and industry leaders.

With these students in my time when aged 15 straight from school, I found them hard to settle down and start learning.  They found it hard to get out of the school non-achiever (dummy) role that had been reinforced by teachers, as soon as they made it clear that they were going into farming.  From then on, the school was giving them the clear message that teachers and school culture had zero expectations for them.

The mantra that ‘you don’t need brains to work on a farm’ has lasted for centuries all over the world.  ‘Weak in the head and strong in the back’ were the only requirements – and these clearly arrived in New Zealand with the early pioneers.

Even in high schools in small rural New Zealand towns – this was still the attitude. I expected it to be better as teachers were bound to meet more farming parents at open and sport’s days and the like.  Some farmers’ wives/partners were even teachers at these schools.

But I have to admit that farmers themselves are not great promoters of their industry, and regularly told their young ones to ‘get a trade’ as it was more reliable than farming – which was certainly true, and still is.  Farmers’ offspring I met were told regularly by their parents that they can always go back to the farm at some later stage in their careers – which some do and when financially secure.

Leave school ASAP
So many of these young men and women told me that they left school at the earliest opportunity (age 15), which they were allowed to if they could prove they were moving to further study or employment. Otherwise in latter years they had to stay till age 16.  

So many students told me that their teacher told them that ‘it would be better for you and better for me if you left’!  How’s that for high ‘expectation’?  These same students didn’t achieve one unit in their old School Certificate or NCEA, which was unbelievable when you think of the resources at 's high schools. 

It certainly tells you something – and it’s all bad.  Surely there was some subject where they could have achieved something, or some teacher who could have taken an interest in them to offer help with something.  These were not stupid people; they had just been neglected and ruined by the education system and this was, and still seems to be, a national disgrace as far as training for the trades and agriculture goes.  How could teachers be allowed to maintain this culture?

How could the importance of a good education for an agricultural career be ignored, when five years after starting a farming course, the young person could be sitting in a bank manager’s office wanting to borrow half a million dollars to buy a herd of cows and equipment.

Learning had relevance
Once these low achievers at school realised their school days were over and they saw the relevance of what they were learning – most took off like a rocket, facing up and dealing with their neglected basic education. For some it took quite a while for them to realise that school behaviour (due almost entirely to boredom) was not relevant in a Polytech where they were treated like adults, and that now they or their parents’ were paying fees for their attendance.

 Our job as tutors was hard for some students, to let them know that we had expectations for them – as they had spent most of their school days getting negative messages from teachers, and suffering years of boredom which is the biggest killer of learning.

With mature students who came on The Waikato Polytech's Herd Manager’s course, it was easier to build expectations, as many were already senior farm staff, or had come into farming from other careers and wanted to move fast as they had families and commitments to provide for.  They had their own clear expectations and we taught what they needed on the farm, before the NZQA Units arrived to bog the system down with paper.

It was rewarding teaching these folk who were used to being treated in a mature way – although there were still plenty of examples of employers who didn’t do this, and support their employees’ attendance at classes. The maybe were happy for their staff to go to class for one day a month, but were not very enthusiastic to support much of what they were learning. But these students had the confidence to leave poor employers without fear of not getting another job.

Mind maps

Example of a finished mind map, built up in stages from a blank sheet in discussion with students' practical  experience.  Their recall on their mind maps was amazing.

It took me a long time to realise that a major part of our schooling was ‘to learn how to learn’ – and remember things to pass exams and then forget them for ever the next day.  So many of our farm students had never been taught how to learn – and would sit in class, quiet and fully concentrating with arms folded, presumably assuming that what they were hearing from the tutor would go into the brain storage and be on instant recall when needed for ever more.  

 They had never been taught to take notes and would ask me if they should write down what I was talking about or copy what I was drawing?  This was panic stations for me after I realised their problem, and I ended up giving them masses of handouts which I suspected they would never have time to read – a skill some did not have in any case!  I regularly went through these handouts in class getting them to highlight the big words and checking they could read and understood them.  The totally illiterate I made sit in the front row so I could help by pointing to these big words.

The success in handouts I learned was to use bullet points and very short sentences that did not go into more than two lines - preferably only one.  Otherwise poor readers would miss out large parts of sentences (especially technical jargon) till they came across  short words they could read.

These mature students had great practical knowledge but had never been shown how to learn, so I changed to using mind maps on an A3 sheet of paper with great success, as we could share our knowledge on the topic, and only write minimal key words on the mind map (see example above which we could complete in a 3-hour session). 

In these teaching sessions students could use highlighting pens to add colour which was great as the brain loves colour.  Students filed these mind maps and I suggested they could update them in their manager roles for when they had to do any staff training.

Fear of exams
What terrified students most was when it came to the end of the course, as to gain the Herd Manager’s Certificate they had to sit and pass a three-hour exam.  They told me that only exam they had ever sat (and mostly failed) was their School Certificate many years ago. Some were so scared of failure that they didn’t turn up for the exam, so they didn’t get their Certificate after a year’s work which I was very sad about, as I knew they had the knowledge to pass easily.

In the  exam format, many students just couldn't get their answers down in what we used to ask for as ‘short notes’ of 50 words.  Asking for a 100-word answer was a nightmare for them as their education at school had been ruined for all time by the system.  This was especially apparent with Feed Budgeting exercises on farms which involved basic maths, and where many women remembered bad experiences with male maths teachers, who had put them off maths for life.

So in the latter years after seeing how producing words was such a struggle for so many, I got them to answer exam questions using a 'mind map'.  Their knowledge and recall using mind maps was amazingly successful. but this would not be allowed under the new NZQA Units system. 

But what was surprising at the end of the course, was that they all said how they had actually enjoyed having to face the exam  - the challenge of it, and were proud of their resulting achievement and Certicate.  Everyone passed  using mind maps – as I expected them to do!  They knew that!

Generation Z
Generation X and Y have gone and now we have another educational problem – Generation Z which have very different expectations, according to comments I hear from employers and educators. They are ‘electronic savvy’ but lack the skills of communicating with fellow humans.  

They also know their legal rights and will resort to legal action if threatened, for example by being reprimanded by employers. Criticism or negative comment are so easily interpreted as harassment – with serious legal consequences, so hiring and firing staff can now be full of hazards .

The motivated members of GenZ certainly don’t seem to lack expectation –but tutors and employers say this has morphed into ‘demand’ – regardless of proof of competence.  In other words, they expect to be praised, complemented, nursed and not criticised in the old fashioned way which they view as harassment.  They are often described as ‘high demand’ people by teachers.

This is not helped with the practice now of removing ‘pass and fail’ from assessments and replacing them with ‘achieve and not achieve’ to soften the reality of life.  The best you can do is to ‘achieve with excellence’ but no mark out of 100 can be given.  So an employer cannot gauge how well a prospective employee did, which could be done in the old days by marks out of 100.

My sad conclusion
It’s hard to believe that in a highly developed country like New Zealand, so many people can look back on a disastrous outcome from their decade or more of formal learning at school. It's also hard to believe that there are so many teachers in schools who may be teaching, but their pupils are not learning.  

But worse still, is there anyone in education research and teaching, at the chalk face and in politics who knows how to fix things? If they do, would they ever be allowed to do so?  You have to wonder what goes on at today's teacher training institutions to allow this to happen.  Do current professors of education every go into a class of bored students for a couple of weeks, to see how modern theories are working?  When manual repetitive work is taking over, what are these 40% of low achievers created by the current education going to do?  Nobody in the current education system wants to consider this question.

So by 2025 when earnings from agricultural exports are required by the current government to be doubled, and 50,000 more trained entrants are needed for the industry at all levels, will we look back on a decade of frustrating failure?  The answer cannot be other than a resounding YES!

No comments:

Post a Comment