As someone trying to set up a school, I’ve been doing a bit of research into different pedagogic philosophies. What’s the most effective way to teach child-ren, particularly if they’re not that interested to begin with? Should we embrace an old-fashioned approach, with masters standing in front of blackboards reciting Latin verbs? Or a ‘personalised learning programme’ in which children acquire ‘skills’?
People on both sides of the argument can point to successful examples. For instance, Maple Walk in Harlesden, one of the schools set up by Civitas, is conservative with a small ‘c’, favouring traditional pedagogy, and has proved a huge success. Kunskapsskolan, by contrast, the most prominent of the Swedish ‘free school’ companies, believes in tailoring the curriculum to suit the child and boasts results that are 15 per cent higher than the Swedish average. Until recently, I was inclined towards the Maple Walk philosophy, but the experience of trying to help my four-year-old son learn how to read has given me pause for thought. Ludo is being taught using a method called ‘synthetic phonics’, a traditional, back-to-basics technique that all primary schools have been forced to adopt since 2006. My six-year-old daughter responded well to this approach, but Ludo is struggling.
He has particular difficulty with irregular or ‘tricky’ words like ‘was’, ‘have’ and ‘the’. He will sound out the individual letters and puzzle away at them for a good five minutes before he recognises the word in question. Then he’ll turn the page, encounter the same word again and start the whole process anew, as if seeing it for the first time. ‘But Ludo,’ I’ll protest, ‘we just had this word.’ I’ll then turn to the previous page and point it out. His response is to stare at it with bafflement for a few seconds and then start sounding out the letters again: ‘Ttt… hhh… eee…’ If Terry Pratchett is serious about assisted suicide, he should volunteer to read with Ludo. After five minutes of this you want to stab yourself in the eye with a pencil.
It would be tempting to conclude that Ludo has ‘learning difficulties’ — and, indeed, I used to think that. In contrast to his whizz of a sister, he did seem like some sort of village idiot. He would run full pelt into closed doors and go up to complete strangers in changing rooms and invite them to marvel at his penis: ‘Look mine willy.’ It wasn’t until my wife gave birth to two more boys, both of whom are equally moronic, that the truth finally dawned. There was nothing particularly clever about my daughter or particularly stupid about my sons. They just exemplified the gender differences that are typical of boys and girls in the early years of their development.
According to the latest official data, over 15 per cent of boys can’t write their own name or words like ‘mum’, ‘dad’ or ‘cat’ after one year of school — double the number of girls. In addition, they’re less likely than girls to be able to dress themselves, recite nursery rhymes or work well with their classmates. The Department for Children, Schools and Families has issued new guidelines suggesting how teachers and childminders can interest boys in learning, such as giving them chocolate powder and coloured sand to arrange in patterns on the floor. The hope is that, like chimpanzees seated at typewriters, they will eventually produce something intelligible.
Last week, Caroline consulted Ludo’s teacher and she came up with a better idea. She suggested we print out the entire list of ‘tricky words’, cut them up and play ‘tricky word snap’. For good measure, we promised Ludo that as soon as he wins we’ll take him to Gambado, the indoor play centre in Chelsea.
The effect was instantaneous. We thought it would take him a month before he learnt all 72 tricky words, but he had them down pat by Sunday. The introduction of an element of competition, combined with a desirable prize, transformed him from an educationally subnormal moron into a fast learner.
So what lessons should we draw? I don’t want to burden my teaching staff with the need to make every lesson ‘fun’, but bribery clearly works. Then again, that too can be a chore. I recently heard a story about a London secondary school teacher who promised a group of GCSE students she would reward those who got A grades by taking them to a restaurant of their choice. Without exception, they all chose Nando’s.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.