Misunderstanding and misunderstood

The title of this blog was used as a phrase to describe a British politician after he had left office. I have often thought about this phrase when I consider all the passion and the power of the great education debates that have been taking place here in the U.K.and over in the United States.

There is a genuine feeling in both countries that something isn’t quite right with our education system. The problem is that the answers are pulling in two very different directions. There is the “return to basics” “teach the essential skills”  “make sure that they are drilled in the important subjects” “tests are best”  school of thinking and then there are the “freedom to learn and explore” “tests are unnecessary” “use new technology in an interdisciplinary way” “break down the walls, don’t set, don’t group by age, allow creativity and expression” school of thinking.

Now those who read my blog will know where my particular allegiances lie in this debate. This post though is not about making points and debunking the opposition. It is about finding a way through. It seems to me that there is a lot of unpleasantness involved in the debate and that it has become a very personal thing to many people.

I always remember back to my study of history and the fact that Field Marshall Montgomery in World War 2 used to have a picture of General Ernst Rommel as he went through the El Alamein battle. He said that it was important to “know your enemy” and appreciate them for their strengths as well as seeking to find their weaknesses. I feel that this is important for every situation. If you disagree with something you need to know where the people who hold those views are coming from and what makes them tick.

I watched a video this morning about the Anser Charter School in Idaho. This school specialises in expeditionary learning and the video shows some excellent examples of their philosophy and their children learning. Notwithstanding the debates about the validity of the Charter School movement and whether they do have the “solution” to America’s educational problems, I found what I saw to be very exciting. Here were very passionate teachers using what I would call very progressive methods to develop their children’s learning.

I decided to look up the Expeditionary Learning Schools and found that they have a really interesting website. From this site I found myself to a video from the White House blog which was called “Meet Secretary of State Arne Duncan” . This was a very interesting video because I learnt a lot from it. I have just gone through a period of Labour Government here in the U.K. where I live and I have experienced the powerful push towards “higher standards” that came from the Governments led by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

As  a teacher and now a Consultant I had to wrestle many times with my own conscience as I saw the growing obsession with targets and standards and test results. We seemed to be in a culture of blame and shame which I can see in many ways paralleled in the United States. But Duncan, like Blair and Brown seem to be coming from the same place. They genuinely believe that what do is for the good of children and particularly the disadvantaged children in their country. They are not fighting to suppress and destroy but to promote a world class system for every child.

This passion can be seen in Blair’s “Education, education, education” speech and in the words of Arne Duncan in the video. It explains their intolerance of those who they see as blocking the “reforms” that they want to see. They are backed up by one side of the media who see their fight as a fight for the heart and soul of what it means to be British or American.

I believe that they are well meaning, I believe that they believe that they are right and I understand what they are trying to say. I happen to disagree with it. I happen to have the opposite point of view about how to take education forward. In the Anser Charter school though I can see where there is the possibility of a meeting in the middle ground. This is an example of where new forms of learning have been embraced and I see a place where I would very much liked to have learnt as a child. As a child I would not have had the equipment that I have as a mature adult to decide that this is a school that has been set up in the midst of an environment where they have chances that other children do not have. That there are schools maybe just down the road that lack facilities and have teachers about to be fired because of test grades!

I would have loved to find out about my local river, to research its history and culture, of the populations that have lived there, the reasons for the human settlements being where they were. I would have loved to have Skyped a school in New Mexico about their river and discussed similarities and differences. I would have loved the chance to visit the river and take pictures, videos, samples of plants and insects. I would have loved the chance to write about these things on my class blog.

The title of this post is really about Arne Duncan. He is misunderstanding of the need to embrace the powerful ideas of those who oppose testing and the narrowing of a curriculum, who actually put forward many of the ideas that the Anser Charter School is putting into practice and that this new world will not lead to a fall in standards but give children the skills in collaboration, problem solving and communication that they will need to cope with their future. He is misunderstood because he really does want the best for the children in his charge, just as Tony Blair and Gordon Brown did, it is the way that they are going about it that is creating all the problems and has led to genuine misery and anger.

We need a dialogue that allows us to talk to each other about the children in our charge. We want the best for them and they deserve the best.  We try to teach them to discuss and find a way through but we do not practice what we preach in own lives. I will not dislike the Anser Charter school just because it is a Charter School, I can admire their work and their passion and  say that it is up to Arne Duncan to see how their lead can be promoted to other schools in his country. They in turn might teach him that grades are not the be all and end all in education and that it is the experience of learning that counts as can be seen so clearly in the video.

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