Industrial Revolution… not helpful!

If you are in education – or a TED Talk fan! – then you’re most likely to be aware of Ken Robinson’s arguments about creativity and how the Industrial Revolution is affecting schools nowadays. In this short article, I am suggesting that the continuation of organizing schools in line with the Industrial Revolution thinking is likely to be responsible for schools’ inability to serve EAL learners properly.

In order to do this, I am first going to discuss what the Industrial Revolution is, what Ken Robinson says about its impact on education nowadays. Then, I am going to discuss the related issues of assessment and organization of schools nowadays affecting the education of EAL learners. In the end, I will propose what changes I see should happen to remedy the situation.

Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution was the period of great changes in terms of economy, technology, society and culture that occurred in the 18th-19th century. On a large scale, the world that used to be agrarian and manual labour-based shifted to being based on manufacturing, industry and relying on machines. There are debates around which exact dates the Industrial Revolution was between, but 1760s to 1840s are often considered to be rough estimates. The first developments commenced in Britain, then spreading to other countries in the world. The changes introduced by the Revolution included the invention of steam power, better ways of making iron, developments in metallurgy, use of coal, rapid urbanization (meaning a lot of people lived in very tight, dense conditions), introduction of debates around child labour, public health and working conditions.

This new factory system has created specialisations and division of labour and divided people into those who had land, profession or money and those who didn’t (Ben and Chitty, 1996, in Gillard, 2011). These transformations have revealed the severe lack of education system in England. A number of different types of schools began to be organized – such as Sunday schools (teaching the poor to read the Bible), Schools of industry (the poor taught manual labour and elementary instruction – e.g. reading, writing, geography, religion), Monitorial schools (teaching based on the Bible with reading, writing and arithmetic: using monitors and repetitive exercises so that the master could teach hundreds of children at the same time), Infant schools (for children at the age of 2 to 6 provided when their parents were working – teaching dancing, playing and singing), Elementary schools (dividing education into grades: initiatory department up to 6 year olds, juvenile department for 6-12, with stress on oral class teaching), and Technical education schools (old apprenticeship system modernised). These schools were established by individuals and groups, who were believers in mass education. To read more on the topic, including on schools that upper classes attended, do read Gillard, 2011.

Ken Robinson: Industrial Revolution and schools nowadays

Ken Robinson’s TED Talk on how he believes schools stifle creativity has been one of the most dowloaded TED Talks. In his view, the entire education system nowadays is based on the idea of academic ability – as opposed to creative ability. Robinson argues for the same value to be given to Arts, Music and Dance curriculum as one given to English, Literacy, Maths and Science. He argues that humanity is diverse and we are needlessly losing hundreds of children whose talents are diverse (such as being talented at Dance). He links this centering on academic ability to the Industrial Revolution, which, he claims, was in response to the fact that there were no systems of education and the system that was created was in response to the needs of industrialism. If you think of the monitorial schools, which I mentioned above, it is easy to agree with his claim. So the hierarchy of subjects – which Robinson says is present across the world, not just in the UK or the US – is based on two ideas: (1) the most useful subjects for work are on top (so, nowadays, you might be steered away from subjects that are not seen as useful – so if you are an aspiring pianist, you might be steered away from Music as it might be seen as a subject that is not useful). (2) academic ability, which in Robinson’s view dominates our view of intelligence. He says that the universities designed the system in their image – i.e. schools are simply a system for getting into university or, as he harshly puts it in his talk, the purpose of public education across the world is “to produce university professors”. And, in his opinion, it won’t serve us for the future – in his view, we can’t educate our children nowadays anymore and ignoring  their creative capacities. Not in the time of students and all of us being flooded with massive amount of information, iPhones, Androids, Twittter, Facebook.

Further, in another of his talks – RSA’s Changing Education Paradigms – he sees that educating children by batches (such as by age, year 7, year 8, year 9, year 10) is precisely modelled on the ideas from the Industrial Revolution times. Ever heard a group of children being called Year 9? We separate them into specialisms, into age groups, into labels. The age groupings Robinson refers to as “the age of manufacture”.


Industrial Revolution and EAL

Now, how does all of this relate to EAL? Constant Leung can help us see this. In discussing how EAL students are assessed in England, he points to the fact that the National Curriculum in England assumes age-related language levels, cultural background and UK schooling which has never been uninterrupted. (Leung, 2014) In my view, this is not dissimilar to being placed on a conveyor belt that you’ve always been on and never got off from – in a factory. Your manufacturing process got interrupted and nobody knows what to do with you!

This is a direct result of the view that we can turn people in robots – perfect machines churning out one product after another. I would argue that a number of English native speakers can’t benefit from this system (e.g. chronically-ill children), but EAL children, such as refugee children with no prior schooling or prior scarcity of schooling, or simply children who don’t have those age-related English levels and certainly lack the awareness of the British culture – these children certainly cannot benefit from this system. This is because the system caters to machines – children who move through the system in a well-oiled kind of way: NC 1b, then 2b, then 3a, then 4b and so on. If your life experience means you’ve fallen outside this normalized, averaged-out kind of system, you can’t benefit from it, and you certainly can’t become the university professor that the system wants you to become.

Therefore, we’re going in the wrong direction. We’re labouring under a system unfit for purpose. EAL teachers work to serve EAL children in a system that does not allow for variability and assumes that all students will fit the conveyor belt designed to take everyone to GCSEs (and beyond). So as commendable as all teachers’ efforts are, unless the system changes and has (at least some) flexibility built into it, it’s all working against us.

This is why our education system measures children who are new arrivals to this country using average English native speaker literacy levels to measure their progress and set targets for them. In more than one school have I seen EAL children receiving targets on the basis of what’s the expected level of attainment at the end of KS2. I am not saying that this occurs only here – measuring children’s progress against native speaker averages is a known problem in other countries as well.

It just won’t do. EAL children cannot be properly assessed using this system regardless of whatever we do. The system does not acknowledge the theories of SLA (second language acquisition) in the assessment of children – it is not ready to accept new passengers mid-way. Therefore, it doesn’t serve them. It does not escape my attention that when EAL children are tested upon entry to the system, I think it’s practically unheard of that assessments would include anything outside of English, Maths and Science – with English being usually the only thing that apparently matters. By doing so, we’re defining them as people who can be described in terms of language, English and literacy. Nothing else seems to matter. Skills in Art, Music, Dancing or ICT do not seem to matter very much. They’re outside of what is considered to be the academic ability, thus they’re not part of what the system takes interest in. We want to be inclusive, but, in fact, we can’t as the system does not allow any outsiders to be a part of the successful production process.

As Ken Robinson says, millions of children are left behind because of the system that promotes one type of thinking and one type of knowledge – and one type of social class as the more powerful. Others get left behind. EAL learners are a group of students that is very obvious here. The rather infamous practice of placing some of them at some schools across the country into bottom sets is precisely how academic ability perceived as emanating only from the core (top) subjects influences views about EAL learners: i.e. if you can’t speak English, you know nothing. Obviously, if you could assess their sports skills, reading maps skills, understanding of how diagrams (biology, physics) work or how good they are at cooking, design and technology or dancing – perhaps we could see what their abilities really are?

We need to build this flexibility into the system. But – this has to come from the top. This cannot be on the basis of some individual schools. This has to come from DfE, Ofsted and the powers that be. If we are ever to assess EAL children properly – taking their entire intelligence, personality and skills into consideration, not just the narrow view of intelligence that is no longer suitable for the 21st century, then we, as teachers, need time to be able to assess this. We need services that are able to do this thoroughly. We need students carefully placed into groups, not in the hasty way that I keep seeing in schools wherever I go (overnight). Whilst thinking about how to teach the English cultural background to EAL students (which is important), let’s take a moment to think about how their culture affects their view of intelligence and how our system values (or not?) their view of intelligence. Is telling them that either you accept our view of intelligence or you can’t be truly successful on our conveyor belt actually reflective of being inclusive? If dance and movement and being active important in a culture of the home, why not take advantage of this and not “ruthlessly squander them” (K.Robinson’s words)?

As EAL teacher, when I hear that I should “link EAL teaching to the curriculum”, can I safely assume that this means to the entire curriculum , not just English, Maths and perhaps Science? Can I do PE with my students and see if they are able to follow sports instructions? Can do I map-reading with them to see if they can tell north from the south and don’t need to rely on SatNav to follow directions? Can I teach them musical notes? Can I then teach skimming and scanning in English followed by times tables teaching for Maths? And, then, can I look all the teachers at my school in the eye and say: “Yes, I am linking to the curriculum, and there’s an actual balance between the subjects I link to.” I also want to be able to say to my students that, yes, we looked at your skills as a school and made a decision that your English language skills do not define you – we know you’re great at Maths and at Geography, just like you were when you went to your school in Lithuania.”

A good place to start for us as a country would be to grant EAL students an EAL strand in the National Curriculum. Recognize their skills in other areas, but also recognize that they do need to improve their English language skills – and that they cannot simply be measured and assessed by the same numbers used for those who successfully boarded the conveyor belt in Year 1 and never got off it until Year 11. And let’s have actually achievable targets based on SLA, not L1 acquisition. How would you like for your child to be measured against an average Spanish speaker if you just moved to Spain to live there?

I am going downstairs now to do some cooking. My wife tells me that EAL is not the only thing I am good at.

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