“Squaring The Circle” Or Lukewarm Water? The Disappointed Idealist vs. Horatio Speaks Affair

[They] are like poets, you know, like Shelley or Byron, or people like that. The two totally distinct types of visionaries, it’s like fire and ice, and I feel my role in the band is to be kind of the middle of that, kind of like lukewarm water.

— “Derek Albion Smalls” from This Is Spinal Tap

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"Derek Albion Smalls" as played by Harry Shearer


Chemistrypoet invites someone to “square the circle” between two powerfully written — but diametrically opposed — posts from Disappointed Idealist and Horatio Speaks.

Disappointed Idealist writes that he loathes what he sees as the current government’s obsession with drawing a line in the sand and declaring those on one side winners and the other as losers. He writes movingly of the experiences of his three daughters:

They just called my daughters “mediocre failures” . . . Like most clever people who don’t have difficulty with language or maths or spatial awareness, or other academic activities, I fundamentally find it impossible to truly understand why they can’t, despite endless practice, remember how to spell basic words, or how to do basic sums. The school have tried all sorts of different methods of teaching it, and so have we at home, but one day it’s there, and the next it’s gone. Some things stick for a while, some things don’t stick at all . . . At home, they are delightful, loving, awkward, stroppy, generous, always hungry, funny and, above all, happy. But they won’t “pass” their Y6 SATs.

I am sure most teachers are familiar with that “one day it’s there, the next it’s not” sensation when teaching SEN students (I wrote a post about it a while back). In my experience, patience and kindness and persistence are the order of the day in this scenario (not that anybody says it’s not.) My experience also tells me that sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

Horatio Speaks makes the case that recent scientific research shows that all children can be taught to read, write and do mathematics effectively, bar a very few severely disabled individuals.

To which I say: good! Like most teachers, show me a better way to teach and I am all over it. Horatio Speaks goes on to say:

I applaud the passion of the Disappointed Idealist . . . But I would be happier if he – and the thousands who cheered him on – were directing their anger at the education establishment’s assumption that we will always have children who fail. It’s a false assumption, as is the emotional caricature that those advocating for more accountability for children’s progress care less about the children. I have worked with SEN long enough to know that the most deadly poison is sympathy. It kills by paralysis.

Over the years and from time to time, sadly, I have seen some bad SEN: “death by word search”, for example. And Horatio Speaks is right, bad SEN can kill by paralysis; or, more probably, boredom. But, obviously, not all SEN is bad SEN.

The nub of the disagreement between Horatio Speaks and Disappointed Idealist, I believe, lies in the use of the phrase “children who fail”.

Horatio Speaks rails against an educational establishment that assumes that we will “always have children who fail”. In my view, he is referring to the fact that some children leave school without basic literacy and maths skills.

Disappointed Idealist rails against a system that wants to label children as “mediocre failures”. In my view, he is lamenting the fact that, according to a politically imposed and essentially arbitrary standard, some children will be labeled as “failures” through no fault of their own and that this is, frankly, unhelpful.

My own view is that both of them have valid points. While it is undeniable that some children will do less well than others, by whatever measure is taken, the question is: what should the education system do with this information?

I suspect that both Disappointed Idealist and Horatio Speaks would argue for a diagnostic rather than a judgemental approach as far as each individual student is concerned.

Circle squared? Maybe, maybe not. This is Derek Albion Smalls, signing off.

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3 Comments

Filed under Data, Education, Politics, Society

3 responses to ““Squaring The Circle” Or Lukewarm Water? The Disappointed Idealist vs. Horatio Speaks Affair

  1. ijstock

    In my experience, many children who struggle with learning are actually having problems with key cognitive skills – nothing directly to do with my subject. I too have seen plenty for whom it is there one day and not the next – and they are not only SEN pupils. When I delve a little, a common response is, “I do understand it at the time – but I just can’t remember it later”. I’m really not sure what to do about this – as in your example, I don’t want to give up on/have low expectations of these children – but there is also a bit of me that wonders whether we are demanding something of them that they simply can’t do – and whether it is actually fair to keep insisting that they *should*.

    How much difference would a change of approach actually make, when the time and content demands of exam courses are unyielding and the gap so huge? Maybe we would be better looking at what we are trying to do with them in the first place, in a much more fundamental way?

    The current system is actually making it worse. I’ve just been marking year 10 books; I have one particular pupil whose target grade is a B; there is no conceivable way this pupil is going to reach that, for reasons that I know but would not wish to divulge. I am in a dilemma as to whether to teach him towards the higher tier work that his target grade says he should be achieving, or admit my “low expectations” and teach him at the level he really needs – and admit that my group will miss its all-important value-added target as a result.

    I know that it is really the target that is wrong – but the system will not permit me to challenge that. And when most of the group are genuine high-achievers, it makes it al the harder to cater for such needs.

    Is this low expectations – or just realism?

    • You get to the heart of the problem. I agree that some students seems to lack key cognitive skills — but I strongly suspect that many of them will develop them later in life. I find it slightly hilarious that many seem to think that a child’s future is set-in-stone for eternity by their performance at school. A sure way of cementing failure is to make people believe that opportunity has a sell-by date!

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