The government is considering a simple plan. To improve literacy you mandate regular high-stakes multiple-choice national testing in our schools. This keeps teachers on their toes and students focused on what matters most.
I’ve just come out of a classroom where literacy rates seemed to have improved quite unexpectedly and dramatically. For eight weeks, a group of 90 postgraduate students, all of them training to be teachers in secondary classrooms, have been doing a course called ‘Literacy across the secondary curriculum’. At the end of the course, the students were asked to respond to the statement ‘My own literacy skills have improved.’ 18% strongly agreed, 39% agreed, 28% were neutral, 13% disagreed and 3% strongly disagreed.
It’s hardly hard-data research, but something of significance appears to have happened. Here are 90 students who have each had at least 15 years of institutional learning, and nearly 60% of them think their literacy skills have improved over eight weeks.
What did we do?
Did we make sure the students focussed on their reading and writing by giving them a test? No.
Did the university tell me that my job was dependent on whether or not literacy rates amongst the students improved? No.
Instead we did what I think much good education has done in the past: we wrestled with an unsettling series of questions, and we tried to get our heads around a challenging body of knowledge. We read a great deal (a textbook and, between us, over 300 shorter texts); we wrote a great deal (each student reported on two significant pieces of original research and most made substantial written contributions to over a dozen online discussions); and we talked a lot in our weekly tutorials. Because the content was, for most of the students, relevant and disturbing, it stimulating a great deal of thinking. A number of the students found themselves mulling over issues as they cooked their dinner or walked the dog or stood in the shower.
The government has a simple plan. Unfortunately it is missing the point about how people learn to read and write.
If we want our young to become better readers and writers, we need to make sure that they do lots of reading and writing. The government’s plan will reinforce current pressures to narrow the curriculum. There won’t be time for wide reading and creative writing. Worse, there will be less and less time for talk, which is where so much fruitful engagement starts, and less time for meandering and mulling. Test scores might go up, but real literacy will be a casualty.
In a future blog post I’ll write more about our ‘Literacy across the secondary curriculum’ course. It’s been highly stimulating and intense.