Teaching English to the English

This is a multiple choice test. Circle one answer. Circling more than one answer will cause a nuclear explosion. How is English taught in England?

(A)  Meticulously

(B)  Fussily

(C) Ineffectively

You are free to choose an incorrect answer, but be aware that your choice will follow you for the rest of your school career.

Time’s up. Please hand in your papers.

No, you cannot change your answer. Your papers will be returned to you the end of this post. Marking has been outsourced to the London Zoo, since capuchin monkeys working on zero-hours contracts are a cost-effective alternative to humans, and considerably less troublesome.

Totally irrelevant photo: a camellia.

While they’re working, let’s explore the subject to help you understand why your answer was wrong. It’s too late to help on the test but it will let you contemplate your mistakes in glorious detail.

Americans—and for all I know people from all non-British countries—tend to assume that British kids get a better education than kids in other countries. I got that impression knocked out of my head a few years after we moved to Britain, when we helped a kid study for her GCSE (a standardized test) in American history. Some of what she had to memorize was inaccurate. Some of it was true enough but pretty much irrelevant to the flow of American history. All of it had that random-collection-of-facts quality that made my own junior high and high school history classes so snorably pointless and guaranteed that tests were damn near impossible to study for.

That complaint, by the way, comes from someone who did well in history, in spite of snore-inducing textbooks. I only mention that so I don’t sound like a disgruntled non-employee. I’m fascinated by history, which is why I’m outraged at the way it’s taught.

But we’re supposed to be talking about how English is taught.

A year or two after we were introduced to the official English version of American history, the girl’s brother was studying a few chapters of Dickens for his GCSE in English. Not the whole book. Maybe the national curriculum didn’t allow time for an entire novel, maybe kids that age can’t be trusted with too many words, and maybe the Department for Education didn’t see the point of reading a whole novel when, after all, it was only a bunch of stuff Dickens made up. Your guess is as good as mine. What I do know is that the kids were supposed to put miniature samples of Dickens under the microscope and obsess over them.

They will, forever after, hate Dickens.

Okay, I’ve mentioned the national curriculum, so I should explain. We’re talking about England’s national curriculum: not Scotland’s, not Wales’s (or Wales’ if you like), not Northern Ireland’s.

The national curriculum was introduced in 1988, with the intention of making sure every child in a state school got the same standard of education. Or, depending on who you listen to, it sets a minimum standard. A 2008-9 report from a House of Commons committee says it accounts for–and I’m paraphrasing–every blessed second of teaching time in every year, so there’s no time for improvisation, responding to the students’ interests, or taking off on an inspired riff. Because everything will show up on a standardized test and the entire staff of any school with too many kids below average will be fed into a shredder.

All students are expected to test well above average. *

Okay, the report doesn’t exactly say that. It does say, “At times schooling has appeared more of a franchise operation, dependent on a recipe handed-down by Government rather than the exercise of professional expertise by teachers.”

Once the national curriculum was established, every government that came into power has fiddled with it, but the fiddler-in-chief was Michael Gove, who was so popular as education secretary that teachers celebrated when he lost his job in 2014.

He moved into another post, but his nit-picking continued to make good headline fodder. He’d been in the Ministry of Justice for two months when he posted a set of instructions to civil servants warning them not to use impact as a verb and to spell out does not instead of using a contraction.

“The phrases best-placed and high-quality are joined with a dash, very few others are,” he announced, splicing together two sentences that should have had a semicolon or a period between them and not bothering to either italicize or put quotation marks around the phrases in question. And, gee, that’s not a dash, Mike, it’s a hyphen.

The article where I found the quote goes on to say that he “also disapproves of ‘unnecessary’ capitalisations and the word ‘ensure’, which his civil servants must always replace with “make sure.’ ”

But we’ve let ourselves get distracted by the trail of scent Gove left as he wandered through the high-end jobs of Conservative politics. You know how easily I get distracted. Why do you bring these things up?

The incident that drew my attention to how English language skills, as opposed to English literature, are taught was a neighbor’s Facebook comment that she was struggling with fronted adverbials.

Struggling with what? I asked myself.

Myself didn’t answer. She didn’t have a clue.

I was saved from my ignorance by another neighbor, a teacher, who linked us to a post by Michael Rosen that not only explained what they are but why they’re not worth teaching. He didn’t go quite as far as saying they’re not worth knowing about but I doubt he’d argue with me if I said it.

The phrase “fronted adverbial” describes what you’re doing when instead of saying “we left at ten,” you say “at ten, we left.” You moved the adverbial clause from the back to the front.

I’m not sure it’s correct to say “I just fronted an adverbial,” but I did just say it. Or at least I typed it. It wasn’t as much fun as you’d think.

In some sentences, Rosen argues, it’s hard to work out whether the words you just, ahem, fronted apply to the subject (in which case they’re not adverbial) or the verb (in which case they are). What’s more, if you have trouble with figuring out which is which, the fault isn’t yours but the concept’s.

And if you can’t follow any of this, don’t worry, because you don’t need to. This kind of teaching isn’t about writing well, it’s about wriggling your human-shaped brain through Gove-shaped hoops.

Kids, however, are supposed to master it when they’re seven, give or take a few months. And pass a test to prove that they have. They’ll come away thinking that “at ten, we left” is better than “we left at ten.” Why? Because it’s been singled out as something they need to learn. If you can front an adverbial, you’re clever.

Our neighbor is I’m not sure how many decades over seven and I have no idea why she felt the need to get her head around the concept. I was too disoriented to ask.

At (if I remember correctly) the same age, the kids are also supposed to understand—

No, I don’t have the heart to give you the full list. Let’s grab a few terms and then run screaming from the room: determiners; clauses; subordinate clauses; and relative clauses.

Enough. We’re outta here.

Sorry, we’re back. I just found modal verbs. What effect does modal have on verbs? Well, when you stick modal on a clothing label it means the fabric’s a bio-based knit or woven fiber. When you stick it on a verb, it indicates that it’s washable.

Does that help?

Does learning grammar improve kids’ ability to write? According to TES, there’s no evidence to show that it does.

What’s TES? A weekly publication aimed at U.K. teachers. It’s been publishing since 1910 and is so well known that doesn’t feel the need to tell you what the letters of its name stand for, but I sent my spy Lord Google to find out and he tells me it was once called the Times Educational Supplement. 

The TES article doesn’t address the question of whether learning grammar puts kids to sleep in class, but you can bet your fronted adverbials that it does.

So there’s your brief introduction to the teaching of English today. We’ll hand your papers back in just a moment, but I can’t leave without a little more Gove-bashing. According to Zoe Brown in the Independent (the link’s above, under “teachers celebrated”), Gove also introduced “Latin lessons, chanting poetry, British values and children having to identify the past progressive tense before they could identify the UK on a world map. It was out with GCSE drama, dance lessons and To Kill A Mockingbird (because there are no lessons to be learnt from that novel).”

We’ve covered GCSEs, but what are British values? That’s a problem, because when they were first proclaimed to be the schools’ responsibility nobody seemed to be sure, and every politician who stumbled into print on the subject offered a different list, so the Department for Education created its official list of British values, and state schools have to stick their feet into it periodically, like Cinderella’s big-footed step-sisters, to remind themselves what their feet would look like if they were prettier.

Brown writes that Gove is “a traditionalist and an ideologue and his reforms seemed to be a desperate attempt to try and recreate his own education. So it was out with the Year Six Calculator Paper—because really who needs to know how to use a calculator in the 21st century? In with specific formal written methods that Gove himself approved. It wasn’t about teaching children to add and take away it was about teaching them to add and take away the way Michael Gove learnt to.”

He also had a copy of the King James Bible sent to every school, with a special foreword by—yes—his own brilliant theological self. If his theology’s as shaky as his writing, it should make an interesting read.The head teacher in one school (if you’re American, that’s a principal) wrote, “Ours is keeping my office door open as I write. A school where 86 per cent of the children have English as a second or third language and 82 per cent of children are Muslim has surprisingly little use for a King James Bible.”

King James alone knows how much the printing and sending cost.

The monkeys have delivered your papers. The correct answer was A. Those of you who gave the wrong answer are invited to impale yourselves on your number 2 pencils.
———————-
* For the joke followed by the asterisk, I’m indebted to Garrison Keillor for his creation, Lake Woebegone, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.
** A friend and fellow writer commented that my posts have seemed angry lately. Bizarrely enough, I hadn’t noticed. Now I can’t notice anything else. The problem is, I keep reading the newspaper. If I stop being even remotely funny, I trust someone will let me know, because I probably won’t notice that either. You’d be doing me a favor.

98 thoughts on “Teaching English to the English

  1. Who knew? And I always thought English had no grammar, because it doesn’t, at least compared to Greek. Depressing, innit? As for history, in Greek schools it never reaches past the 19th century—mythology, Ancient Greece, Byzantium, the glorious revolution which freed us from Turkish occupation, and repeat. Suffice it to say, I’m not one of those who think their school years were the best times in their life—despite being a good student, mainly thanks to a visual memory.

    Liked by 2 people

    • One of the good things about our [yes, I’m assuming] school days being moderately miserable is that it gave us something to look forward to. I’ve come to feel sorry for people who reached their high point in school.

      As for English having or not having grammar, it does have it, it’s just that no one knows what it is and the people who think they do don’t agree on what the rules are. But don’t quote me on that because I’m sure I’m technically wrong even though I’ve captured the spirit of the situation.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I have hateful feelings whenever I see Gove’s face, or read his name in the papers, they well up inside me and I have to have a word with myself. A similar thing happens over Jeremy Hunt. I am thankful I am way too old to have had today’s education curriculum, for me English Language and literature classes were a joy, and I had inspirational teachers.

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  3. I am so glad I left teaching!

    Not that I taught English, but even so!!

    I went to primary school in the early 80s and started secondary school the year before the national curriculum came in. I was therefore in that bit of the education reform where the powers that be decided that teaching grammar was unnecessary.
    I must have learned some somewhere along the lines mind you, and I am fairly sure it wasn’t just obsessively reading style guides.
    Anyway… my point was, I can write, I am even paid to write, and I have no idea what a fronted adverbial is.
    Ok…I do now because you just told me, and I read Michael Rosen’s post because Michael Rosen is awesome.
    I feel I may have wandered off the point…

    Did I mention I am glad I left teaching?

    Liked by 2 people

  4. When I was in Grade 13, I had an English teacher who gave us a grammar test every Friday. You had to get 80% or better, or you had to take it again until you did (usually at lunch on Monday). I studied hard each week so that I wouldn’t have to give up lunch with my friends. I don’t know about empirical research, and I’d never heard of a fronted adverbial even though I’ve used them plenty, but personally, I think it made me a better writer. So thank you, Mr. Paquette!

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  5. We had to dissect the whole of Dickens and I’ve never been able to stomach him since. That was back in the days when teachers could innovate, answers were more important than methods and the school calculator took up a whole room and called itself a computer.

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  6. I seriously doubt that this was Gove’s motivation for wanting to teach adverb-fronting, but here’s a linguistic factoid about it: fronting in general (I suspect that object frontings like (“Bagels, I like. Pepperoni pizza I could live without” are native to you, as they are to me) is used by linguists who work on English syntax in analyses of various and sundry kinds. For example, one of the standard tests of whether something is a combination of a verb and a preposition versus an idiomatic “phrasal verb” is whether or not you can front the prepositional phrase:

    “Ellen told me to look up the alley, and up the alley I looked.” (Verb + preposition)

    …versus this, which is not English (an asterisk in front of something is linguist-talk for “not part of the language under discussion”):

    * “Ellen told me to look up the number, and up the number I looked.” (Idiom: “to look (something) up”)

    Gove is clearly an asshole, at least on the face of it.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Your second example had me laughing out loud. It’s such a combination of logical and nonsensical. How are they ever going to teach computers to make sense of this mess we call a language? The only way I can see it working is to eliminate the human element altogether and have them speak to each other.

      You’re right that object frontings (this is the first time I ever heard the phrase) are native to me but I’ve often wondered where I picked them up. Are they standard, non-regional, non-ethnic, more or less universal English?

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  7. I think the problem would be solved if Germans taught children grammar. Having said that, I don’t think even Frau Porter, who taught me, had come across a fronted adverbial. She knew a lot about modal verbs, though.

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    • Your idea of having Germans teach English (I assume) grammar makes me wonder if a language’s grammar isn’t more apparent to people who come to it as a second language. They learn it as a kind of defense against chaos.

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      • Frau Porter taught us German, but it was from her that I learned about English grammar. I think she knew more about English grammar than any of the English teachers (i.e. teachers of English) at my school. On the other hand, my French teacher (who was French) had little idea of English grammar. She was very good at teaching French, though.

        The more languages I learn (it’s a hobby), the more I understand how very odd English is.

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        • Well, there goes another very nice theory out the window.

          What English grammar I learned, I learned in Spanish class, although our primary Spanish teacher (one year, we had someone different) was terrible. Truly awful. But the textbook still introduced us to things like the subjuntive, which was an eye opener. But it was functional grammar, not specialist, hair-splitting grammar.

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          • I don’t think I understood the subjunctive until I went to university. My French grammar book (in French) is over 1,000 pages. There was at least one chapter on the subjunctive. By the time I’d worked my way through it, I understood how it worked in English as well as in French. I haven’t got to it in Spanish yet.

            Liked by 1 person

  8. As I ploughed through this I chuckled and winced and pondered and chuckled some more and ploughed on…I was looking forward to my coffee…now I’m seriously considering stronger drink.

    By the way, Australia has an insidious beast they call NAPLAN which seems to have been bred by and is under the control of people who have no idea of teaching. It may carry the imprint of Gove on its underside.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. Wow! I thought American schools sucked. I am so glad we homeschool here. I will comment on the inaccuracies for the history you mentioned. Even here, history changes a bit based on where you learn it. Try discussing the Civil War in the North and in the South. They truly are not the same. My grandmother once went to my mom’s parent-teacher conference and asked why they only teach the Southern version of the War (they were in the South at that point). My mom was rewarded with writing a paper outlining the Northern version of the War. My poor mom.

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  10. Well, given the incoherence of so many, clearly, something ain’t going right. There’s nothing wrong with the principal of teaching the best way of expressing yourself in your own language. Gove, I’m afraid, is almost as irritating as Jeremy Corbyn; how do we allow these pillocks to get elected?

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    • We’ll disagree about Corbyn–in a friendly way, I hope–and I’ll shift to the other part of your comment: how many people are incoherent. Decades ago (a good many decades) I worked as a copy editor for a very bad hunting and fishing magazine. Most of the writers were of my generation or considerably older (I was born in the 1940s), so they went to school before standards allegedly deteriorated. And they were terrible. Not just their grammar but the logic of their articles. My job was to take a machete and hack through the mess they handed in, trying to find something in it that was vaguely coherent. Conclusion? The problem (as least in the U.S., and I’d guess in Britain as well) is older than we generally think it is. Solution? I wish I knew. A complete rethink of the way English and writing as taught wouldn’t hurt.

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  11. The whole thing makes me want to foam at the mouth with rage. I despair at the attitude of politicians like Gove, who seem to want to take Britain back to the nineteenth century in every way possible (with the exception of Jacob Rees-Mogg who wants to take us back to the eighteenth century). The most passionate anti-Gove champion of English teaching that I know of is the children’s poet Michael Rosen, who has written at length on his Facebook pages about why Gove and his acolytes are disastrously wrong, and are causing untold damage to our education system and to the children subjected to it.

    Sorry if this is a bit of a humourless rant, but I don’t see anything funny in what Gove has done to our pupils and teachers with his heavy-handed, authoritarian nonsense.

    Liked by 3 people

  12. Brilliant – as an ex-teacher (I sincereley I hope I never am forced back into the classroom but if people stop buying my paintings it’s not impossible) I thought you summed up the insanity of Michael Gove’s reforms pretty well. Whereas he sees “rigour” everyone else sees dull fact-filled lessons and exams designed to fail pupils (or should say designed so that pupils will fail?). Take a deep breathe (me). I love Michael Rosen, by the way. He has an excellent programme on Radio 4 called “Word of Mouth” in which he discusses the wonderful weirdness of the “English” language (other forms of English such as American English as also discussed).

    Liked by 2 people

    • May people keep buying your work. I’m sending out invisible psychic rays to get them to do that. Buy, people, buy. In fact, here’s a link:https://emmafcownie.com/.

      The whole idea of exams is assumed to be that someone has to fail, otherwise what are you judging? In another comment, someone (forgive me; it’s early morning and I’m not awake enough to remind myself of who it was) wrote about a teacher who had students retake his tests until they passed. What an inspired approach. It’s not about flunking some portion of the class, it’s about making sure they learn the material.

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      • Thank you Ellen!!! You do make me laugh. That’s a gift. I recently taught in a school where the head of History department’s policy was to give the kids model answers and then ask them to do the test. If they didn’t do very well they could redo it at home and bring in their best version. In this way the kids had the notes for the real exam. Needless to say this department got excellent results. My friend, Claire, ran the department and she was a brilliant teacher and a great manager.

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  13. As far as grammar’s concerned, does teaching it via osmosis count as ‘ineffectively’? It’s what my teachers went for, but I’d class it as ‘not teaching it at all’. “Oh, they’ll pick it up as they go along” appeared to be their rationalization.

    Unless I was just asleep for those lessons.

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    • I was taught/not taught it the same way. It did work–at least for me; I’m not sure how well it worked across the board–but throughout my working life it would’ve been useful to have the tools that would have let me explain, at least to myself, some of my decisions. So those are the two extremes: Don’t teach it because the kids’ll pick it up or treat seven-year-olds like they’re going to specialize in linguistics. Somewhere in the middle, surely, there’s another possibility.

      The don’t-teach model was a response to the earlier method of having kids diagram sentences, endlessly. I’ve known a few people who had to do that and said it was completely useless to them–they learned to diagram sentences like experts but took no grammar or writing skills away from it.

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      • We all know the grammar of our native language perfectly well, because we speak it and are (most of the time) understood by others who also speak it. What teaching English should be about is showing children how to use language effectively for a whole raft of purposes, and let them practice doing so – this is what Michael Rosen advocates.

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        • I both agree and disagree, and my disagreement comes from decades of fixing other writers’ grammatical mistakes. I’d make a distinction between spoken and written language. Every culture teaches it’s children to speak, and does a great job of it. They may not teach the formally approved version of the language, but they teach the version they use. Written language, though, we don’t do as well with. Maybe evolution just hasn’t had time to catch up with that development or maybe there’s some other reason, but not all kids intuitively learn it.

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          • I agree with what you said Ellen. But (and I think this was your original point too?) teaching children about fronted adverbials and other abstruse grammatical terms isn’t a very effective way to teach them how to write well. On the contrary, it’s a very good way to turn them off writing for life.
            The best analogy I can think of is, if you want to train someone to be a proficient car mechanic who really likes their work and is committed to doing a good job, don’t start by making them memorise lists of car parts.

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      • I see your point – of a middle ground surely being possible. But of the two extremes, I think being given none of the tools of theory is much, much worse. It’s equivalent to never being able to show your working in mathematics – because you’re actively expected to be able to intuit the right answer. And the less mathematically-able kids are left to flounder – in this analogy – because obviously if they had any natural talent, then they wouldn’t need to be taught and given the tools.

        It’s an offensively essentialist approach, that basically assumes an intellectual elite (and often that translates into an economic and social elite, with books and coaching in the home) and treats those who need to be properly drilled and led through the steps as disposable garbage.

        I read enough as a kid – and now – to get by, indeed picking the basics up by myself. (With a few noticeable lacunae.) So much the worse for the kids who didn’t, and don’t. But it leaves me a naif fool, jumping to answers that intuitively ‘feel’ right, without being able to back it up and demonstrate the proof.

        (Incidentally music in state schools in my day was taught in much the same way – and we caught hell if we didn’t have the skills the teacher expected, without her ever having taught us them. Good job I hadn’t fully developed my inner bolshy scrapper at the time, and couldn’t articulate and define my frustration. I might have proffered the conclusion I came to later on – that it’s the incompetent teacher who avoids anything that smacks of system and rigor, for fear of displaying their own inadequacy.)

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        • I accept your point about the difference between what works for kids who read a lot and what works for those who don’t, but the show-your-work approach to teaching math was a complete failure for me. I remain a mathematical disaster zone. I’m not sure what conclusion to draw from that.

          Teaching English is complicated by the difference between the written and spoken language, and by the existence of varied strands of grammar, many of which are considered incorrect, although there’s nothing inherently wrong with them; they just happen to be the grammar of people who aren’t in power. Kids do pick up the grammar of whatever form of the spoken language they live with. It’s one of those odd and breathtaking things that small kids do as they’re learning to speak, right down to, initially, following the rules even where the language doesn’t–using gooses as the plural of goose, for example. So the comparison to teaching math just doesn’t work. When we’re talking about the spoken language, humans do seem to have an inborn ability.

          Teaching the written language, however, is something we humans aren’t as good at. If teaching the grammar were a way to include everyone, I’d jump at it, but many people I know who were taught that way back when it was in fashion the last time around are a monument to it inherent problems. It bored them to tears, and as one of them told me, she could diagram a sentence beautifully but never did learn anything useful from the exercise. It didn’t teach her writing. It didn’t actually teach her much about the language. It’s a complicated problem and I don’t know what the solution is, but it’s not drilling grammar into kids’ heads.

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          • It’s the written form of language I was thinking of really. Who doesn’t use contractions, throw a bit of slang in, add a neologism or ‘incorrect’ usage that’s catching fire on social media, when speaking? (Only Jacob William Rees-Mogg. And that speaks for itself.) But in a job application, or in public speaking, say, people need to know and understand the ‘correct’ usages too.

            I don’t at all mean to suggest that drilling and formal theory classes are a cure-all: there are always going to be mixed abilities in any academic cohort (for all sorts of reasons, economic and social as well as innate.) Your experience with mathematics demonstrates it. No amount of sentence diagramming and coaching on appropriate use of tenses is going to bring every individual up to a minimum standard and fill in all the holes in knowledge and ability.

            I’d say it’s the least-worst option to give at least the basics of theory, that’s all – without hammering at it until kids are sick to death of it.

            We don’t live in a perfect world, there’s never going to be a perfect answer.

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            • Years ago, an adult student in one of my writing classes told me about an inspired English teacher she’d had, who somehow managed to communicate an understanding of English grammar by telling her class to throw it all up in the air. Whatever it was that they (or at least that one student) understood didn’t survive the translation. Which is a shame, because I’d have loved to know what she meant.

              It says a lot about our society that we accept that there’s a correct way of speaking that we need to master to get certain kinds of jobs. That may or may not change in our lifetimes, but it is, certainly, changeable. All you have to do is listen to the range of accents that are now perfectly acceptable on the BBC that would once have been considered barbaric, uneducated, etc. etc.

              Again, I don’t know what the answer is, either the perfect one or an imperfect one. I’d love to hear what English teachers have to say on the subject. Sadly, all the recent efforts to standardize teaching so that kids don’t get left behind seem to have managed not to bring the lowest teaching to the highest standard but to cripple the best teachers.

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        • A bit off topic, I know, but the maths (AmrE: math) thing is close to my heart – I have great sympathy for people who hate maths, but my theory is that this is usually because of bad maths teaching in schools – it’s even worse than a lot of English teaching.

          An episode of Jim Al-Kalili’s “The Life Scientific” on BBC Radio 4 in February this year featured the mathematician Eugenia Cheng (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09nvrcn). Ms Cheng is a very interesting and articulate speaker, but one thing she said particularly intrigued me: “Feeling confused is an essential part of doing mathematics”. What? Yep, if you’re doing mathematics properly, at any level, you’re going to feel confused.

          Now lots of people I know have had a bad experience of maths. They say things like: “I hate maths. I never could understand what it was for, and it was hard, and I couldn’t do it anyway, so I gave it up at school as soon as I could.” It’s a great shame, because the idea behind this reaction is that maths is something only really clever people can do because it’s easy for them, unlike us mere mortals. And bad maths teaching perpetuates this myth. But this is akin to saying that football is only for professionals like David Beckham who obviously finds it easy, so there’s no point in us mere mortals playing a game of footy and enjoying the rewards of doing so. Given the number of people who play football for fun, it’s clear that very few of us think we’re barred from playing the game just because we’re not experts.

          Even Eugenia Cheng got caught by this when she was at school, and in particular by the “feeling confused” thing. If I feel confused when I’m trying to do some maths, then this must be because I’m not very good at maths, and if I feel really confused, then I must be really bad at it, right? Because the “experts” don’t get confused do they? The teacher isn’t confused, right?
          Wrong. If you’re feeling confused when you’re trying to solve a maths problem, this shows you’re doing it “right” – it’s ok to feel confused, that’s how it’s supposed to be! You’re not dumb or useless just because you’re confused. And Ms Cheng insists that she frequently feels that way when researching her subject too. It’s just that the maths teachers never told us that this is how maths is for everyone – even for the most feted of mathematicians!
          Yes, maths can be confusing and difficult sometimes, just like any creative human endeavour, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it!

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          • I like the idea that being confused is part of the process. It reminds me of a quote about writing, which I’m sure I’ll mangle and that’s okay since I can’t remember who to attribute it to: A writer is a person who find writing harder than other people do.

            Having said that, allow me to speak for at least some of the people who never managed to learn math: I suspect there’s some form of dyslexia that applies to numbers alone. I may or may not have had bad teachers–I suspect some were good and others weren’t. What I can tell you is that I not only didn’t get math, I also didn’t get arithmetic. And that gift seems to run through my mother’s family. She kept it a deep secret from me on the theory that if I knew I’d have a reason not to try (she’d known about it and it gave her permission to give up). It was a nice idea, but it didn’t help.

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            • Your confession (if that’s what you could call it) doesn’t surprise me – my sister had the same problem for. What little I do know about children’s mental development and the psychology of how they learn, is that mathematical thinking goes through various phases of development in all humans. This means that it’s impossible to teach a child particular mathematical concepts (in the sense that the child “gets” them) until they’ve has reached the relevant stages of mental development. For example, if you show a very young child a tall thin jar, and a short fat jar that have the same volume and ask them which one is the biggest, they’ll invariably point to the short fat jar. Then fill the short fat jar with water and carefully transfer the water to the tall thin jar, which also fills that jar “of course”. Ask the child again which is the biggest jar, and they’ll still select the short fat one. They won’t say “Oh I see now, they’re both the same size!” They just don’t make the connection. So, you can’t teach the relatively abstract concept of shape-volume invariance to a child until their brain is sufficiently developed to get it.

              Now I suspect that for some people, for whatever reason, some of these critical brain developments don’t happen or are inhibited, and that prevents them from being able to advance their mathematical abilities.
              I remember demonstrating to my sister aged around 16 the (amazing) proof that the square root of two is irrational (i.e. it’s not a fraction like 7/5), and she just couldn’t get it, whereas to me it really was obvious.

              What this means for teaching maths, is that if you have a curriculum that forces children to “learn” certain mathematical skills at too young an age (and that age varies from child to child), a) they won’t learn them, and b) they’ll become anxious around maths and that will be a big barrier to their ability to learn and enjoy the subject in future.

              But of course, the whole point about the UK National Curriculum’s prescriptive, “no-nonsense” approach, is that it’s been directed by politicians who despise academics and reasoned academic research. All that we’ve discovered over the last fifty-odd years about the psychology of learning has been deliberately and cynically ignored in favour of an approach I would summarize as “what was good for me in my horrible school is good for your children and the country as a whole, because I say so.”

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              • Your example with the kids and the jars reminds me of one of our godkids, who has a cousin who’s two months older but shorter and slighter. Since adults are always telling kids, “When you’re bigger,” she couldn’t get her head around the cousin being older since she herself was bigger. I bailed out of trying to explain it pretty quickly, figuring she’d sort it out before she was 25. I think by now she has.

                You may well be right about teaching concepts at the right time, but I’m not convinced that there was a right time for me. Someone (usually my partner) will occasionally tell me I could go back and learn math as an adult and I agree soberly and forget the suggestion until the next time it comes up. Oh, hell, you’re right: anxiety.

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          • Malcolm Gladwell references a study – I forget in which of his books – which demonstrates that the difference between school-kids who do really well in maths, and those who fall behind, is how long they’re willing to sit and struggle with an intractable problem. Not any natural innate ‘genius’ – just pure persistence. Never give in!

            Also two of the smartest people I know claim to be ‘hopeless’ at maths – when one of them is really good at engineering and physics, so that’s intuitively wrong to me from the start. I deduce terrible teaching, not lack of ability, personally.

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            • I can’t rule out terrible teaching, but I’m not convinced that willingness to struggle with a problem was the problem, because I conked out long before we got to that stage, at simple arithmetic.

              Interesting, though, that someone good at engineering and physics would say they’re bad at math.

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            • Andrew Wiles spent a very, very long time struggling with the apparently intractable problem of proving Fermat’s Last Theorem (it was a conjecture really, as Fermat himself never published a proof).

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  14. I only scanned this and it gave me a headache. Whoever wrote those various, abysmal, English lessons is apparently the same who authored my recent online “Intro to IT” coursework. I’ve played with, or worked in, IT since I was 4 (1968!) and I found the majority of “this will probably be on the quiz” info to be pointless and/or inaccurate.

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  15. My guess is that Mr. Gore hated school and waited years to get even with the system. Unfortunately the English children got in the way and must live with the results. (Aside – my husband learned most of his American history in the classroom and I learned it when my parents took us around the country on vacation. Guess which one of us hated history?)

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    • How anyone manages to love history, given what they do to it in the classroom, remains a mystery. My parents had a good collection of books on history that I read my way through and ended up loving history, but that was in spite of school, not because. I wonder if we’re ever going to learn how to teach kids without making them suffer. Somehow we’ve managed to think the two are inextricable.

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  16. I love your jab at the multiple choice questions. I despise the ridiculous ways kids are tested. I also agree that traditional ways of teaching grammar don’t work and don’t improve your writing skills. I had the pure luck of being admitted to a new journalism school that emphasized learning the basics of grammar. The creator of the school was a working journalist who didn’t want to teach college students unless they new how to write a clear sentence.

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    • Now that’s someone I’d have loved to study under. And wish every other writer had. I worked as an editor and was floored by the number of serious writers whose sentences required a machete–and sometimes a detailed map–before they went into print. I don’t know how writing should be thaught, but I can come up with a dozen ways that it shouldn’t be–all of them well established.

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