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December 20, 2005

Is there a zeitgeist that affects the West as a whole? Theodore Dalrymple finds very similar debates in France and Britain on the best methods of teaching children to read - yet neither debate refers to the other

Posted by Theodore Dalrymple

The same debates about teaching children to read are rehearsed in Britain and France, finds Theodore Dalrymple. Within weeks of each other the British and French education ministers made very similar policy pronouncements on the best methods for teaching literacy. The same vested interests opposed these pronouncements in both countries. Yet, listening to the debate in either country one would not hear references to the debate in the other. Theodore Dalrymple asks, is there a zeitgeist that affects the West as a whole? And what might this zeitgeist be?

The first time I realised that there was something profoundly wrong with the British educational system Ė which is not, of course, the first time there was actually something very wrong with it Ė was when I returned from a prolonged sojourn abroad.

I had taken a job in what used to be called a slum, but was now called an inner city. In fact, from the purely physical point of view, the slum wasn't too bad, though it was still said to be one of the worst in the country. The problem was not raw poverty, certainly not of the kind to be seen in the Third World countries from which I had just returned.

I became interested in Ė perhaps appalled by would be a better way of putting it - the educational and cultural level of my patients, more particularly the younger ones. I took to examining their scholastic accomplishments very briefly, for it seemed to me that some of their problems, at least, arose from their incapacity to deal with the exigencies of modern life.

Perhaps the most memorable answer I ever received was that given by a young man, not of high intelligence but not subnormal either, to the question of what three times four made. "We didn't get that far", he said.

Eleven years of compulsory education - and they didnít get that far! No doubt someone would pipe up that if only we spent £40,000 per head instead of £20,000 per head (or whatever the amount is), all our children would reach at least the six times table.

As to reading, I found a population less good at it than the Tanzanian peasantry. Asked to read something, most of the young people would squirm as if straining at stool, and then deliver themselves of a few words tentatively. When asked at the end of the sentence, a good proportion Ė the majority Ė would say, "I don't know, I was only reading it." Reading for them was a kind of ritual performed to get the teacher off their backs, and perhaps the educational inspectors off the teacher's back.

Even more remarkable was the fact that when they came to a long word, they would struggle over it for a time and then give up, saying Ė and pointing to it with their finger Ė "I don't know that one", as if English were not written alphabetically, whose admittedly irregular orthography gave some clue to pronunciation, but in ideograms or hieroglyphs.

I long suspected, and subsequently had confirmed, that the new methods of teaching children were responsible for their incapacity. I could think of no greater disservice to children in a modern society than to leave them semi-literate and innumerate, and began to conceive of teacher training colleges and the Department of Education as an evil conspiracy to ensure that there were a substantial and sufficient number of dependents and hopeless cases to justify an enormous bureaucracy of welfare. No doubt an exaggeration, but a possible interpretation.

Well, the other week the French Minister of National Education issued a statement in which he said that to continue to use the global recognition method of teaching children to read would be criminal in the light of its established failure, and that it was his duty to suppress it. Never mind that the very same minister, over a decade previously, had put his signature to a circular to require the global recognition method: this time he was speaking sense, even if purely opportunistically.

Now of course, we in Britain had recognised the failure of the method only a week or two before, and the Education Secretary more or less promised a return to the traditional methods.

What was interesting was that the same vested interests in the failed methods came to its defence in France as in Britain, and the same stories of teachers clandestinely using the traditional method as if they were engaged upon a criminal activity were told in France as in Britain. It was discovered in France, more or less at the same time as in Britain, that the pupils of schools whose teachers had defied the educational establishment, were much better at reading than the pupils of schools where the injunctions of the establishment had been obeyed. And even the statistics were the same or similar: it has been found that 25 per cent of French children reaching secondary school cannot read, at least with facility, the same proportion more or less as in Britain.

What is so striking about all this is that the British never referred to the French experience (at least as far as I know), nor did the French ever refer to the British experience. Both treated their national cases as isolated or sui generic, yet the very timing of the decisions to adopt and abandon a teaching method that, to a person with a minimal amount of insight, would have seemed a very bad idea from the outset was very similar.

Is there then a zeitgeist which affects the West as a whole, almost irrespective or independent of the individuals who live there? Not long ago in Australia, I shared a panel with a woman described as "a social entrepreneur", who had won awards for her pioneering thoughts and efforts. She, too, was part of the great bureaucratic drive to create a substantial class of no-hopers, though she went further that the global recognition teaching method, which at least acknowledges, in theory, that it is desirable for children in modern societies to learn to read. She said that reading and writing were almost obsolete "technologies", and that voice recognition systems were now so advanced that they would be redundant. She said she spoke on behalf of those minorities for whom the culture of reading and writing had never been very important: though to my ears, it sounded like the sovereign method to keep the Abos down.

It is tedious to have to argue against this nonsense, which triumphs by boring its opponents into submission. But my question is, what is the zeitgeist that, like the sleep of reason, has brought forth monsters? It is frivolity without gaiety and earnestness without seriousness: in short, decadence.

Theodore Dalrymple is a writer and recently retired as a doctor.


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I wonder about the boy who said, "We didn't get that far." Was he simply, as he would say, "winding up" Dr Dalrymple? That is to say, perhaps he had no intention of answering such questions, so he came up with a reason to put him the doctor off asking them. Of course, if he'd really been removed from mainstream education (where he would certainly have made the acquaintance of the three times table) *that* early, then the problem was likely not the way maths was taught to him but his behaviour.

I suppose a heavy dose of drilling in tables and the like would produce a generation of children who could pass the appropriate tests. It seems to work in the Far East. On the other hand, as the experience of the Far East reminds us, it would also give us a generation that would be able to pass the tests without understanding what was in them, let alone being able to use what the knowledge they were supposed to have acquired.

I recall a relative - an academic in Chemical Engineering - telling me of a Malaysian student producing a formula in an exam. He reproduced it perfectly - except that he had it upside-down and obviously didn't have the first clue about what it did and why.

The same point has been made many times:

"Morris told us a little statistic that was shocking to us ... when [the Japanese] take their senior high-school tests after their compulsory five years of English, they score higher in English than do United States kids. ... Even though they score consistently higher, thereís just one tiny problem: they canít speak English. They canít speak any English. They canít even write in English. They can read English, sort of, and they can take English tests real good.

"He said this problem permeates the Japanese educational system: they donít learn history; they memorize it. They donít learn mathematics; they memorize it. They donít learn science; they memorize it. Itís drill, drill, drill, discipline, discipline, discipline."

http://www.asktog.com/travel/Japan/japan09.html

I doubt that kind of approach would work in England nowadays, because I doubt English children would be amenable to the level of discipline necessary for it. English society is simply not like that.

This is not about a school, but it is symptomatic:

http://www.portal.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2005/12/18/nwallop18.xml

In the current cultural climate, few sanctions, however mild, are left to teachers.

But even if such a scheme were implemented it wouldn't "solve" the education "problem": it would just produce children who could pass the tests that were given to them.

Posted by: Michael at December 20, 2005 11:42 AM
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We remain in debt to the good doctor for these insights. I work in such places as Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania, India and Afghanistan. What they all have in common is bright, attentive, hard-working young people with heart-melting manners to match. I admire all of them. One simply does not come across either the typical, Western, teenaged, slack-jawed, mouth-breathing, chav-moron, nor the passive-aggressive, Lesser British Slattern, male or female, (in autumnal plumage including the Burberry cap).

I have little doubt that over time the bright kids of Africa and South Asia will replace us on top of the heap, that we will wash their clothes and cook their meals, and that they will deserve it. But what causes the decadence here? A good question, but I suspect a lack of necessity.

Posted by: s j masty at December 20, 2005 04:44 PM
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One problem with the British school system is the need of some teachers to think of themselves as respected highly professional types rather than instructors and minders of children. This leads them to demonstrate their competence by devising pseudo-scientific new ways of doing simple things, such as teaching the 3 Rs. I'm not anti-teacher, and I was one myself for a few years, but I did notice that quite a significant proportion of teachers have a very high opinion of themselves, and many delude themselves that if they hadn't gone into teaching they would have set the worlds of business, law, technology or the arts alight if only they chosen to pursue a career in those jobs.

Posted by: simon at December 22, 2005 11:17 AM
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The boy who said, "We didn't get that far" and Michael's comment above should remind us that, even is reading is now to be fixed, numeracy is not.

Along with every other child educated in the late 40s, I learned my times tables by age 7. I use them every day, in spite of being surrounded by a nest of gadgets.

By the time our kids went to school in the 80s, teaching the tables had disappeared, so, like other middle class parents, we provided private coaching and they learned their tables.

This failure to teach the basics of numeracy has been going on for 25 years now, and nobody, not even the French, seems to be bothered!

Posted by: Gandalf at January 5, 2006 11:19 PM
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"I wonder about the boy who said, "We didn't get that far." Was he simply, as he would say, "winding up" Dr Dalrymple? That is to say, perhaps he had no intention of answering such questions, so he came up with a reason to put him the doctor off asking them. Of course, if he'd really been removed from mainstream education (where he would certainly have made the acquaintance of the three times table) *that* early, then the problem was likely not the way maths was taught to him but his behaviour."

Having taught "key skills" maths in a further education college, I can vouch that familiarity with the three times table is not something which can be taken for granted: indeed, these days it is the mark of a scholar of rare distinction. Wind-up or no, the author's thesis is amply borne out in my experience. GCSE maths passes are seemingly awarded irrespective of a child's level of numeracy.

"I suppose a heavy dose of drilling in tables and the like would produce a generation of children who could pass the appropriate tests. It seems to work in the Far East. On the other hand, as the experience of the Far East reminds us, it would also give us a generation that would be able to pass the tests without understanding what was in them, let alone being able to use what the knowledge they were supposed to have acquired."

A false dichotomy: it doesn't have to be "drilling or" --- it can clearly be "drilling and". Indeed, it has to be: some basic facts must simply be remembered. And your evident disdain for "a heavy dose of drilling in tables" might evaporate if you ever had to try to manage working in a busy shop without them. But then I'll bet that you learned yours by heart...

"But even if such a scheme were implemented it wouldn't "solve" the education "problem": it would just produce children who could pass the tests that were given to them."

Years of failed "progressive" teaching methods and government targets produced your dreaded scenario years ago.

...You don't train teachers, do you?

Posted by: Paul H. at July 26, 2007 08:48 PM
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