Learning to Read vs. Learning to Think

Clearly, an ability to read and write is a prerequisite for being a functioning member of society, and therefore a mainstay of education. But if you were of the view that ‘creativity is as important as literacy’ in preparing children for the challenges of the real world, how would last week’s education white paper read? I would argue that whilst the reforms will certainly strengthen reading, literacy is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for educating people to think. On that basis the approach of the white paper looks oddly selective.

Called ‘The Importance of Teaching’, this raft of measures represents one of the more radical and ambitious aspects of the new administration’s plans, and is meant to be a positive note in the midst of all the difficult decisions about cuts.

I must admit at this point that I have not read all of it. I went straight to the section I was interested in: the plans for reform of the national curriculum. And as someone who can still remember in great clarity my school days, the undertones of this chapter strike fear into my heart. A fear of stifling boredom, of interminable lessons, of things to be learned for reasons entirely obscure.

Instead of an approach that acknowledges that human beings are naturally inquisitive and that this aspect of our nature should be nurtured and exploited in our systems of learning – which would be a quite a radical departure from the current setup – these reforms feel like a retrograde step, a retreat to defend an earlier position, masquerading as progression. A missed opportunity.

The paper is striking in its clarity of ideology, and of expression (which admittedly makes a refreshing change from the jargon-laden tomes that Whitehall used to issue under the last government).

The over-arching message of the paper is about putting trust in teachers (critical, therefore, is a ready supply of good teachers). With regard to the curriculum, this means setting a much narrower and clearer content requirement – what is being taught – and allowing more freedom in how.

Except when it comes to reading.

The message that comes loud and clear from the document is, before all else, we must teach children to read. (And in that respect decrees the use of a particular method called systematic synthetic phonics.) Before I continue, I should say that I am an avid reader and would always advocate the joys and importance of reading. But it is interesting to note how this highly evolved, idiosyncratic, sophisticated state of affairs (where the printed word has become such an underpinning of society) is taken as natural, as a given, with no hint of uncertainty or awareness that that might change:

‘Learning to read is the first and most important activity any child undertakes at school. Having this basic foundation unlocks all the other benefits of education. …Unless children have learned to read, the rest of the curriculum is a secret garden to which they will never enjoy access.’

That last sentence is very revealing as to what are believed to be valid subjects for a curriculum. But education is not only about literacy. This paper is arguably the enshrinement in policy of one man’s ideology, and as such, is neither self-aware as being an ideology, nor recognised for what it is: a very narrow interpretation of what ‘educating’ means.

For myself, a breadth of experience has always been the key to opening up the brain to make connections between different things, to have original thoughts. I am not alone in this belief. It is more or less what Sir Ken Robinson argues, I think.

This seeming resistance to radically rethinking education in relation to our actual real world needs, means we are simply and criminally not preparing future generations for the not-inconsiderable challenges they will have to face. As he observes of the present system in Do Schools Kill Creativity?: ‘as children grow up, we start to educate them progressively from the waist up. And then we focus on their heads. And slightly to one side.’

To the cynical reader, the white paper might smack of the belief that because a particular educational formula has served the author well, that is logically the best medicine for everyone, even if they might not like it. The fact is, not for everyone is a frontbench political position. Insisting on this particular formula only closes down options for those who aren’t so interested in the ‘secret garden’ one can access through the reading and writing-based disciplines.

The paper assumes a very narrow interpretation of ‘academic’, reinforcing the academic-vocational/ first-second class divide. GCSEs are still the default option, and the discussion of vocational qualifications features in the same paragraph as the terms ‘low-attaining pupils’, ‘special educational needs’ and ‘deprived backgrounds’.

Worse, vocational is simply equated to ‘practical and technical education’, with no recognition that there might be room for this content and these skills in an ‘academic’ portfolio.

The so-called creative subjects are squeezed into the category of ‘cultural appreciation’:

‘Children should expect to be given a rich menu of cultural experiences. … We will support access to live theatre, encourage the appreciation of the visual and plastic arts and work with our great museums and libraries to support their educational mission.’

The paper’s plans for the curriculum seem to conflate content or subject matter with different ways of learning and developing the mind. It fundamentally categorises the whole gamut of learning according to subject matter, and then arranges those categories in a hierarchy of importance, rather than appreciating the benefits of accommodating a range of pedagogic techniques.

This may be because, as they say, they want to allow teachers freedom in their methods. But I still have two objections to this confused approach:

1) for interpreting the contemporary world in a savvy manner, developing visual literacy – the interpretation of images in particular – is important (see previous post);

2) to be able to change the world around us, to be something more than passive recipients, to invent solutions, requires a broad training and development of the mind, of the different kinds of intelligence, of the whole person.

For those who haven’t seen Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talks I would thoroughly recommend. I won’t attempt to paraphrase his genius, but I will conclude by with the particular nugget that earned him a standing ovation after only five minutes of talking.

‘Creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.’

2 thoughts on “Learning to Read vs. Learning to Think”

  1. It’s clearly totally important to read but I wonder if a barrier to it is the insanely perverse spelling of the English language. Reading and writing are related and children who can’t spell well will be demotivated as they struggle to do so and when they see their mistakes, and that demotivation may spread to their reading. English is too geographically distributed to have an organised spelling reform, but the answer is to allow children- and anyone- freedom to spell more phonetically, and drop the idea of a ‘correct’ spelling. I ‘m told that the education ministry in New Zealand does not mark down exam papers because of mis-spellings, even in text speak (txt spk).
    Freed of the idea of ‘correct’ spelling, English will migrate to a more phonetical future, which will be a great relief not just to children learning to read, but the 2 billion or so who grapple with English as a second language. And if anyone thinks this approach denies the rich heritage of say English literature- well, Shakespeare was a great one for variable spellings, was he not?

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