Give Them the Facts
Many state-school teachers are superb, but as they are judged by standards that value skills over content and are driven by targets and exams, content is inevitably slimmed down. Schools are fully aware that the exam stipulation of "pre-1914 prose", does not say "novel". So any clever teacher, facing children who have been taught hardly anything in their school career, will teach Oliver Twist by reading a few pages at the start, include the three pages where Bill Sikes gets killed, then have the children watch the film. The same is done to satisfy the requirement of "showing awareness of ONE Shakespeare play". The 1996 Baz Luhrmann film Romeo+Juliet (sic), starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes is so overused in schools that in their exams, children write about Tybalt carrying a gun, Mercutio driving a car and Romeo and Juliet first seeing each other through a fish tank. Not that such comments would cause these children to fail the GCSE exam. All they need to do is show awareness of the entire play.
Wide reading uncovers worlds that would otherwise be closed to a child who never leaves his postcode, and only knows his estate and the local High Street. In life, one cannot meet the same variety of people or have access to the same range of human motivation available in books. In books, one can make connections across class and race, and identify with people who are different from oneself. The more one understands the complex reasons for Hamlet's behaviour, the greater sympathy one will have for him. Reading a wide variety of literature increases one's emotional literacy, which is an essential skill for success.
Inevitably you become a better learner by learning more, for you build on the initial learning experience and "hang" new learning on previously learnt "pegs". Some of that learning "sticks", and becomes second nature. A skilful driver doesn't consult a manual every time he accelerates. The proficient foreign language speaker doesn't delve into a dictionary every time he wants to speak. Success in anything requires knowledge, and revisiting that knowledge is not only preferable, but absolutely crucial.
Ask any child across the country about their uniform and they will dazzle you with their in-depth knowledge and skill on this topic. Why? Because every year, whether it is in English or Languages or Tutor time, they will write letters explaining why school uniform should be abolished or indeed retained. The skills of forming an opinion, building an argument, constructing sentences, writing with a pen, are cleverly taught through knowledge they already have and naturally think is important. An act of pure genius — until you realise that boring the kids to death by never teaching them any knowledge is precisely what drives them into the comfort of their Xboxes and PlayStations. We don't necessarily need a massive injection of technology in our schools to make lessons more interesting, as some would argue. We just need to teach our kids something worth learning.
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