March 31, 2006

A Serious Pet Peeve

Consider the following:

The Government is to give schools an extra 2m to improve the teaching of geography.

The campaign will be launched tonight by the former Monty Python star Michael Palin, whose travel documentaries have reinvigorated the television genre. He will highlight the importance of geography in tackling issues such as global warming, telling his audience: "If we don't understand geography, we can't properly understand the past, present or future of our planet."

The move follows a report from Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, which found that geography was the worst-taught subject in primary schools. The Government's exams watchdog, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, has further warned that the subject is in a "vicious circle of decline" in secondary schools. As a result, a generation of young people are not being properly educated about vital global issues, government education advisers say.

Figures show that GCSE entries in the subject have slumped by a third since 1996, and A-level take-up by about a quarter. In addition, about 25 per cent of lessons in secondary schools are taken by teachers not trained in the subject.

The number of pupils studying geography dwindled after it stopped being a compulsory subject on the school timetable for those over the age of 14. A similar fate has befallen modern foreign languages.

I don't care much about the manufactured pseudo-crisis in geography education in the UK, Michael Palin's idiosyncratic obsesions, or even the dearth of, say, Swedish speakers in Great Britain, but that last paragraph does highlight something that apparently a significant percentage of the adult population seems to keep misunderstanding, with catastrophic long term implications.

Multiple choice test: When it comes to what a teenager needs to study and learn to get on with the rest of their life, who knows better:

A. The teenager and his/her circle of teenage friends with their vast collective store of knowledge, accumulated experience, and perspective gathered from, in some cases, literally weeks of carrying the load of responsibility for themselves and others.
B. Adults


Now, I'm not claiming that adults always know the best answer, or even a good answer to all the decisions that a teenager has to make, but why should anyone be surprised that teenagers aren't exactly interested in the same things that someone who has been around the block more than a few times has learned the hard way may be important -- especially if learning these subjects is difficult, unpopular, takes effort, or has a payoff that can only be realized years from now.

Grrrrr... but if there is anything that troubles me even more, pedagogically speaking, well, see if you can guess what it is from the following excerpt of the same story:

Rita Gardner, director of the Royal Geographical Society, said: "It is the only subject in the curriculum which can get to grips with issues like climate change, rises in the sea levels and vital national and global issues. There is an awful lot of good geography teaching in schools, but quite a high proportion of geography lessons are taught by non-specialist teachers in secondary schools.

She added that one reason for its decline was the fact that the geography curriculum had not been updated since the 1980s, when the national curriculum was first introduced in schools.

As a result of today's package, devised by Mrs Gardner and David Lambert, chief executive of the Geographical Association, - both of whom have now been appointed as advisers to the Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly - schools will be sent videos of celebrities visiting different parts of the world in a bid to make lessons more interesting.

And no, I'm not thinking of Ms. Gardner's problems with getting a grip, proselytizing pseudoscience, pandering to the existing workforce (their present apparent failures leading to this crisis notwithstanding), over-reliance on certifications, or her truly imaginative belief in vast changes in world geography since the 1980s as the root cause of of the crisis in geographic tutelage. Heck, I'm not even thinking here about the inherent inanity of appealing to, ugh, celebrities as authority figures (Ed: But will they be properly certified?). What I object to most is the idea that it is necessary to stoop to entertaining the kids to get them to learn.

If I have to choose between my kids disliking school but learning, or loving school but being total dunderheads who believe it is most important that they have fun and feel good about themselves, well, you know which of the choices of this false dichotomy I'm going to make. But anyway, I think you know what I mean.

Grrrrr... grrrrr...

Posted by Charles Austin at March 31, 2006 02:27 PM

Hmmm. How about choice 3: kids hating school and learning to be suicidal because humans are killing the planet? Can you imagine the boredom of sitting through hours of leftist palaver being passed off as required geography lessons? Good Lord..give the kids maps and make them memorize them. Takes 10 minutes of class time to intro, 30 minutes of coloring stuff with handy colored pencils, test in a week.

Posted by: amyc at 03:51 PM