Saturday, 3 July 2010

Top of The Form - The General Knowledge Curriculum

I can't even remember how the subject came up, but I was in the staffroom before registration a couple of days ago when my friend and colleague Michelle and I were discussing radio 4 quizzes, since Counterpoint just ended a couple of weeks ago, and out of the blue she asked me what the name of the radio show that used to pit teams of schoolchildren against each other. I replied that she probably meant Top of the Form. That was indeed what she meant, and then she went on to earn my huge jealousy by saying that she had been involved in preparing a team for the show when she was a teacher at Olchfa School in Swansea. She was a very young teacher at the time, I might add. She explained what an enjoyable experience it had been for everyone concerned.

Now, apart from wanting to record this fact for posterity, I would like to tell you where the conversation went next. Firstly to - isn't it a shame that there is nothing like Top of the Form for schools now ? - to which the answer is yes - from which it was but a short hop to - do you think that most school children have the same amount of general knowledge now as they did when Top of the Form ended in 1986 ? - to which the answer is no, to be honest. I have expounded on this subject before, so I won't go on too much about it, but my feeling, based on my experience as a teacher is this. The children in school today, and for the last 2 decades, are every bit as bright as my own school generation were, in fact there's a case for saying that they are actually quite a bit more intelligent than we were. However they don't pick up the same store of general knowledge that we did, a lot of which has to do with the way that we teach today, and the emphasis there has been for giving children skills, rather than a store of knowledge. I'm not saying that what we do is wrong, either, just making an observation.

Stone me if there wasn't an article in the news the very next day, with Education Minister Nick Gibbs moaning about the very thing we'd been talking about - the headline being "Pupils Must Learn About Miss Havisham , says Minister " Has the crafty sod bugged our staff room or something ? If you want to read the whole version from the Guardian Online, here's a link -
Pupils Must Learn About Miss Havisham, says Minister

Now, I don't know where you might stand politically, and I'm certainly not going to ram my political opinions down your throat. If you read the article there is some sense there, although the idea that knowledge equals understanding is a dangerous generalisation in my opinion. I know how an internal combustion engine works, but if my car conked out in the middle of nowhere I wouldn't have a cat in hell's chance of being able to fix it, for example. But what intrigues me about this is just WHO is going to decide what a child should know ( as opposed to the skills a child should have ) at the ages of 11, 14 and 16 ? When the National Curriculum began, the decree went out that all children must study Shakespeare. Now, I don't have a problem with children studying Shakespeare. To be honest, I LOVE teaching Shakespeare, but I would also love teaching many other great writers, and would prefer to be left the choice. The elevation of Shakespeare above any other writer in the English language, and the idea that when you've done Shakespeare then you've covered the basics in english Literature seemed then, as it still does, rather facile, and I worry that similar proscriptive and obvious choices would be made in terms of what General Knowledge should be taught when.

One deliciously naughty question comes into my head . Lets suppose there was, for the sake of argument, a National Curriculum General Knowledge test, to be sat by all 16 year olds as part of their public exams. How many adults would pass it ? If you've ever looked through the National Citizenship test, which did the rounds a few months ago and use that as an example, I think that the answer is that most of us wouldn't. Whatever the case, its an interesting issue, I think you'll agree.


Jennifer Turner said...

I had to look up who Miss Havisham is. Which goes to show (1) that they weren't teaching us that stuff twenty years ago either, and (2) that it's made no great difference to me as this is the first time I've ever needed to know. And that's "needed to know" in a very loose sense indeed.

Londinius said...

Hi Jenny,

Yes, I think that the headline writer picked the Miss Havisham one as a slightly tongue in cheek comment. It is difficult to imagine a situation outside of a quiz where being able to dredge up that particular datum is going to make an appreciable difference to your life.

As I said, kids today are every bit as bright today as they were in my day - and I can easily accept that they may well be brighter.

Gruff said...

I was in the first year of GCSEs. History was (and still is) my favourite subject. At the time there was much talk about us 'understanding' and 'empathising' rather than knowing facts - as if facts were a) irrelevent and b) 'so last year'

So I was able to go into an exam and answer a question on the Great Reform Act of 1832 where my mind went blank on facts but I remembered the general thrust of the subject. I passed with a B (which would nowadays probably be an A****) and half of me thinks "I knew what the Great Reform Act achieved, so fair enough" but the other half of me thinks "But it didn't prepare me at all for A Levels or Degree level where I needed both understanding and facts."

I think that there was some skewed thinking in those early days of GCSE. The same same skewed thinking that thought that a multiple choice exam up to Grade C level was a proper test. I remember sitting the GCSE Computer Studies exam and relaising I could have got a grade C on the paper without studying; the multi-choice questions were so badly written. Granted, the introduction of coursework was probably a good think, but I feel today at a distance of 20+ years that GCSEs marked a big shift in our learning/teaching culture and it wasn't necessarily a good one.

Gruff said...

oops pls forgive the relaising/realising and think/thing typos

Londinius said...

Hi Gareth

I might teach english, but I'd never pull anyone up on typos, as you can see by many of my own typo-riddled posts.

I have never only ever taught 11 - 16 year olds, so my comments which follow must be viewed in this light. Preparation for A level /degree is and has been a huge issue for a long time. Of course you are right to suggest that there should be a combination of both knowledge and understanding. But calling for that doesn't make very interesting headlines - too bleedin' obvious, I would have thought.