Why Mr Gradgrind, Thou Art Updated! by @emc2andallthat

“NOW, what I want is, Skills. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Skills. Skills alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.” Mr Gradgrind paused for a moment.

This is a re-blog post originally posted by Gethyn Jones and published with kind permission.

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“And when I say ‘teach’ what I really mean is ‘facilitate’. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Skills, sir!’ The scene was a plain vault of a school-room, decorated only with the multicoloured pyramid of Bloom’s Taxonomy on the far wall which the speaker’s square forefinger emphasized silently by pointing, in the approved “talk-less” neo-Gradgrindian manner.

“In this life, we want nothing but Higher Level Thinking, sir; nothing but Analysis, Evaluation and Creativity!” The speaker and the second grown person present both swept with their eyes the knots of little vessels then and there arranged in groupwork PowerTalk Circles (TM), ready to have imperial gallons of Conceptual Understanding facilitated into them until they were full to the brim, or at least until their personalised learning objectives could be self-actualized and triple cross-checked by peer assessment.

“Girl number twenty,” said Mr. Gradgrind, squarely pointing with his square forefinger, “as a starter, please go to the flipchart and analyse and evaluate what the concept of ‘horse’ means in the 21st Century within the context of productive economic citizenship. Please make full use of all the colours available to delineate your thought-clusters. You have two minutes.” Sissy Jupe blushed nervously but gamely walked over to the flipchart stand. Mr Gradgrind started a countdown timer on the interactive whiteboard.

The pips sounded and Sissy stepped away from the flipchart. She had drawn a picture of a horse. It was actually quite a good picture although it was wearing a hat and smiling in a decidedly unhorselike way. She had written, “Dobbin is a quadruped” in very neat handwriting at the bottom.

Mr Gradgrind refrained from commenting with some difficulty. “Suggestions?”

A hand went up. “She should use the word ‘because’ in every sentence to encourage higher level thinking skills?”

“Yes, but . . .” conceded Mr Gradgrind , walking over the flipchart and putting a big red circle around the word quadruped. “More suggestions? Yes, Bitzer?”

“The sentence containing the word quadruped is a statement of a merely factual nature, sir,” said Bitzer, pulling a sour face as the word ‘factual’ left his mouth.

“Precisely!” roared Gradgrind . He turned towards the class. “And why should we bother to remember things when–“

“–we can look it up on Google!” chorused the class. Poor Sissy Jupe looked crestfallen.

“Bitzer, show us how it is done.” The whey-faced lad tapped away on his iPad.

“Sir, horses are not quadrupeds! It says here on Wikipedia that they’ve got five legs.”

“One cannot always trust Wikipedia, boy!”

“The article was updated not seven and a half minutes ago by a contributor called Professor LOLZ, sir!”

Gradgrind gave Sissy Jupe a significant look. “Analysis, Evaluation and Creativity — that’s how it’s done! Consider: (1) the article is recent and up-to-date; (2) it’s written by an academic; and (3) Lolz sounds a bit German and they are a jolly efficient nation with an education system that is higher in the PISA rankings than ours! QED. Well done there, Bitzer!”

Sissy Jupe looked puzzled.”But . . . horses have four legs, don’t they?”

Gradgrind warmed to one of his favourite themes: “In the fuddy-duddy old twentieth century, perhaps horsies did have four legs. But in the twenty-first century, are you going to rely on what your brain tells you or what the internet says?

There’s going to be a lot of Chinese and Indian people about, some of them quite clever. Big numbers. Lots of new words and job titles with the word digital in them. Twenty-first-century skills, sort of thing. Shift happens..”

Gradgrind became uncomfortably aware that his precis wasn’t having the same impact as the ‘Shift happens’ Youtube video itself usually did. “Consider, young Sissy,” he said, changing tack, “the skills of 21st century equestrianism are likely to be vastly different from the skills of 20th-century equestrianism. If you had learned to ride a twentieth-century horse, would you still be able to ride a twenty-first-century horse?”

“Erm . . . yes?” offered Sissy, hesitantly.

“Of course not! You see, that’s why we’re not teaching you any stuff that might change in the near- to medium-term future because that would be silly, wouldn’t it? Instead, we’re teaching you skills that will last a lifetime, like using internet browsers and how to use keyboard shortcuts on proprietary software to cut-and-paste. Because those skills will NEVER become obsolete, you mark my words!”

The second adult in the room, the normal class teacher, stepped forward, shaking his head in admiration. Speechlessly, he removed his mortarboard and handed it over to Mr Gradgrind . Mr Gradgrind acknowledged the gesture with a grave and courteous inclination of the head, before throwing that tired old symbol of traditional teaching into the nearest wastebasket.

He drew two baseball caps from his pocket — they both had the words ‘Lead Learner’ embroidered upon them — and both of them reverently donned them. From somewhere, the opening bars of Mr Boombastic blared as they got on with chillin’ wid da kidz.

Sissy Jupe sighed and opened her book and started reading quietly: it had been a close run thing, but just for a minute there it had seemed as if someone was actually going to teach her something…

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