Argh! Algebra! The danger prescriptive learning.


I was pretty cheerful last month as I managed something that this time last year I never thought I would be able to do. I passed my Google Analytics IQ test. One reason among many that I would not have been able to do this last year, is that I had no idea what Google Analytics was.

I am not by nature a techy person. I did a degree in Literature and Philosophy and work in Marketing, so I’m used to having room for creativity and for shades of grey.

However, since I started working at a web design company, I have become aware of all sorts of things I never knew existed – techy things, you know, logical, geeky things. I have also really started to enjoy learning them, in large part becuase the people I work with are very encouraging and willing to teach me. I also enjoy them becuase now I’m teaching myself, I have realised logical things don’t exist in a vacuum. The techy stuff is in fact very creative, and more importantly, that logic and creativity overlap so completely that by learning many different areas, your knowledge of all of them is augmented and improved.

I have started to learn to code, which I am enjoying a surprising amount. I don’t have to learn this, it is just something I stumbled upon through work and which I wanted to learn more about. Thankfully, the internet is full of places that will teach you things for free. I went to a very traditional all girls’ school in Lincolnshire, and was from an early age made very aware by my teachers that I wasn’t any good at maths or statistics. For fear of my GCSE grades reflecting badly on the school (an 11+ streamed school) I was dumped into the bottom set where the teachers attempted to drag my dim mind up to at least a C-Grade for the sake of the league tables.

The thing is, as with many of the other subjects taught in a ‘traditional’ way, I had no point of reference to demonstrate how what I was being taught fit in with anything outside it. There was no creativity, or inkling to encourage an inquisitive nature regarding the wider implications of the lessons. That is why I was so pleased to pass my Analytics exam – it served as a reminder that the sight of anything that looks vaguely algebraic can still (17 years on!) strike fear and disillusion into my soul, but that the fear is in the main unfounded.

Through much effort, it seems I am better at teaching myself, and thankfully, due to the good old internet, I have the opportunity to do so. I can learn with people from all over the world, for free. There are forums where you can ask others who are learning, and work things out together. It’s interactive, subjects and cultures overlap, and the context of what you are learning can be applied in your life. You also have the opportunity to be inquisitive, and like never before, the ability to find things out for yourself.

This seems to be something that Michael Gove is keen to deny, despite evidence, expertise and advice to the contrary. Prescriptive learning simply doesn’t fit in today’s society. Learning by rote and limiting study areas to that of your nationality is surely a step backwards. It’s not that the topics on the curriculum are not worthwhile, as I say, I’m a literature and philosophy graduate so Shakespeare and romantic poetry get my thumbs up. But that can’t be it. Limiting what children learn and taking it out of context makes it inapplicable, and much harder to understand.  It also stops children’s natural inquisitive side wanting to learn more.

Thankfully, children are more imaginative and intelligent that Mr Gove gives them credit for. More realistic and knowledgeable people like the quite brilliant Sugata Mitra have realised the potential of children to learn without the restrictive and outdated methods proposed by the education secretary. In this brilliant TedTalk, he shows just how capable children are if given the freedom and opportunity to work things out for themselves. He also shows the way in which globalised learning – and learning about places and events unrestricted by geographical limits – comes quite naturally. Surely this is hugely important in an age where global trade, travel and communication are so intrinsic to the way we live.

The curriculum Gove proposes harks back as many people so often do, to a fictional ‘golden era’ of education and national pride. Even if such an era did exist in the way it seems to in Gove’s mind, it is limiting, and it simply doesn’t fit anymore. We should encourage children to use the new resources they are so comfortable with to learn about the wider world, about how disciplines overlap, about how people have progressed throughout history without propaganda. They should also to be given freedom to see how what they are learning really applies to the world around them.

If we do this, odds are they will be much wiser and more tolerant than the generation before them, not to mention a lot more confident about their skills.


3 thoughts on “Argh! Algebra! The danger prescriptive learning.

  1. Compulsory mass schooling certainly kills the love of learning for many kids. Pre-schoolers are little bundles of creativity and learn to sit up, walk, climb, talk, make up stories, make funny music, go mad with paints with little input from adults. But something strange happens in schools and for many kids learning is seen as a stultifying chore.

    I utterly hated Shakespeare at school as it was presented as just another arbitrary topic to learn at 9.30am on a Tuesday with a dour teacher, loaded with homework to sap my free time and the fear of an eventual exam. Of course, now if a good Shakespeare play is on I’ll get tickets as, freed from the sausage factory, Shakespeare’s magic.

    Have you read John Holt’s books?

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