The English government’s obsession with micromanaging education from the centre whilst shouting about local control and choice continues with the new SPaG (Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar) test for Primary School children.

Like the changes to the syllabus to include Coding, my worry is that the education system is concentrating on the atoms of learning while ignoring the structures. Understanding the fragments that make up structures and systems is useful for some but knowing how to use the systems is probably more important in the long term for the majority of people.

Know your words

For example, the new SPaG test requires pupils to be able to spot a Fronted Adverbial.

I can be sure that almost no adult reading this article knows what one of those is nor, I can be pretty certain, has any situation occured where knowledge of Fronted Adverbials has affected any critical situation.

It doesn’t matter. It will never matter.

Yes, it is knowledge. You can learn it.

But the only use of it is to be tested on it.

It’s being taught purely to be tested.

That’s ridiculous.

Coding the future

The problem is this is part of a pattern of education as proof of schooling rather than education for human benefit.

Coding is another area where the purported purpose is knowledge but the practial result is a detour into the pointless.

I used to manage a factory, making steel nails. I had staff from the 1950’s who were taught Technical Drawing. It was a skill that an industrial economy valued.

Yet it led nowhere. On one side, the United Kingdon de-industrialised; it closed the industries that valued the skill. On the other, the skill was overrun by CAD/CAM; industries that remained used different skills.

Coding is on the cusp of being in the same situation.

A digital economy needs code but where it is written and if it needs to written by humans are both valid questions. We already know code writing competency is not specific to one place. Thus it is as open to markets as mechanical industries were in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Even more problematically, it is also the kind of overt skill that expert systems and low level Artificial Intelligences are quite good at.

The thinking is the thing

In both the SPaG and Coding examples, the issue is that the education system is being aimed at the wrong thing.

Being able to parse grammar or code is a testable skill. Exams can be set, results can be tabulated.

Yet the thing of value, the thing that has long term meaning for the teacher and pupil, the thing that creates economic value is not that.

It’s the ways of thinking. It’s the rhetoric, the logic, the wit.

Grammar is part of clear communication but it is possible to speak and write beautifully without knowing grammar.

Coding is part of building digital products and services but algorithmic thinking is key to success not specific coding ability (just look at the Tower of Babel of code languages used currently and the mythical figure of the Full Stack Programmer).

Validate thinking and talking

The depressing misunderstanding of education is shown in last week’s story that the Education Czar says group work and poster making is not teaching.

That is true if you think teaching exists to create skills that can be tested in exams.

But it doesn’t. More importantly, it shouldn’t.

The group work, the talking, the making, the play. That is the most useful education that the teacher can enable and enhance.

That’s where the skills needed to live happen.

Teaching specific knowledge that is of interest and use to a minority of pupils to the majority is to invert the point of schooling.

Missed thinking

The ability to think empathetically or algorithmically matters.

The ability to work in groups and have compassionate understanding of the diverse needs and capacities of people matters.

It’s those things that are buried under the syllabuses of testable facts.

Teaching matters. Teachers matter.

But not just to tell children facts that are only valid in tests.

The education system is being forced to teach and test for a closed loop of exams and results that benefit no one.

Thinking is key. Free thinking and free discussion.

Thinking builds the skills for children to live better lives.

Written by

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. www.linkedin.com/in/alastair-somerville-b48b368 Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX

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