"Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe."
- Abraham Lincoln
It is half past three on a Friday afternoon. An Autumnal grimace sweeps through the corridors of Jamie Oliver’s Dream School. Everything feels desaturated and artificially alive. The only sound to be heard is the far-off clatter of Simon Callow stacking plastic chairs in the main hall, occasionally stopping to pick up discarded crisp packets and half-empty cans from the floor.
Andrew Motion is sat peering from his classroom window, the faint suggestion of imminent tears begin to collect at his eyes’ corners. He has been here since the end of his English lesson, three hours ago. As it is a heavily overcast day, Motion can make out the translucent reflection of his surroundings in the window. Exercise books sit, untouched on their desks; some pencils were taken away by the pupils after the lesson, others were left, one has been snapped in half and left on the floor.
It is then that Motion catches a glimpse of Oliver’s celebrity ‘school inspector’, Emporor Wen of Sui. The ex-laureate is apprehensive about receiving lesson-feedback from the 6th Century’s founder of the Sui dynasty, but knows that it will be beneficial to his pedagogy.
Motion: Emperor. Please do come in.
Wen: I am not disturbing you?
Motion: Only from myself, Emperor. Only from myself.
Wen: Well, how do you think your lesson went?
Motion: It had its good moments, Emperor. Did you see when Harlem read out that poem about the woman in the painting?
Wen: The poem that you wrote almost entirely yourself off-camera?
Motion: She read it well though, didn’t she?
Wen: On the fifth read-through, sure. But what was your learning objective for that lesson?
Motion: What do you mean?
Wen: You know, your uh, thing you wanted to teach the kids how to do at the end of your two-hour session?
Motion: Well, I wanted to show them that poetry is for all of us, not just the dusty academics in their ivory towers, but for everyone.
Wen: That’s not really a measurable skill that one can chart the development of during a two hour session though, is it? I mean, it’s a bit abstract, almost as if you watched one of the montages from Dead Poets Society and went for that kind of feel?
Motion: Oh don’t give me all that measurable learning objectives nonsense, there’s more to it than that.
Wen: Can you think of a better way of measuring the quality of a lesson?
Motion: Well, yes, you need to just get a sense of the atmosphere in the room. Are the youngsters enlivened and inspired and motivated by a teacher who dares them to indulge their dreams.
Wen: Did you inspire the pupils by daring them to dream?
Motion: I would have done if they weren’t so fucking naughty! Did you see them in there?
Wen: Why do you think they were being so unruly for you?
Motion: Well, they probably haven’t had any good teachers before and their parents probably never read poetry to them and took them to the V&A when they were younger.
Wen: But you are aware that other teachers have been doing well with the kids? Rankin got them all doing homework a couple of weeks ago. Jazzy B has pretty much become a God to these people. Jazzy B, Andrew. Do you have any idea how long it’s been since that guy was in the news? And he’s wiping the floor with the rest of you.
Motion: Well if the kids had given me a chance, they’d have got to the bit where I gave them all a signed copy of The Cinder Path.
Wen: Why would any of them want that? They don’t know who you are.
Motion: Well, because I’m famous.
Wen: OK, Andrew, let’s play it your way for a second. Let’s pretend that ‘learn to love poetry’ is an acceptable premise for a lesson. How did you achieve that?
Motion: Well we started off with a quick chat about who I am and why poetry is important and then we went on to…
Wen: OK, so there is your first mistake. You can only harness the attention of naughty kids by bombarding them with accessible activities at the outset, and leave the group discussions for later on once you’ve established stability.
Motion: Does listening to the most famous poet in the country not count as an activity?
Wen: No, I’m thinking of maybe something like a wordsearch of powerful verbs that you can come back to and get them using in their creative writing later. Obviously you would need differentiated ones so that kids with specific speech and language difficulties can access the task too.
Motion: A wordsearch? You want an ex-Poet Laureate to make his first impression by handing out wordsearches?
Wen: Of course. Then, you’ll have tricked them into establishing that silence you so desperately crave in your lessons and it gives you the opportunity to go and have individual conversations with the pupils right at the start. The ones that finish first can be given dictionaries to discover what the words mean, and think about how they might be able to use those words in sentences and poems. Little baby-steps towards the finished product Andrew.
Not the sage on the stage, but the guide on the side, Andrew, that is the mantra of the modern teacher. You aren’t there to prescribe knowledge, but to facilitate the act of learning.
Motion: I really do think I’m going to hit you, Emperor Wen. What the fuck does a 6th Century Chinese Emperor know about modern education?
Wen: More than you’d think, Andrew.
Motion: Enlighten me. What do you have to offer that gives you the right to be school inspector?
Wen: Well, ask yourself, what is it that we want our pupils to leave school with?
Motion: A love of poetry?
Wen: Don’t be naïve Andrew. What do people actually need when they leave school?
Motion: Um, qualifications?
Wen: Right, and how do you get qualifications?
Motion: Well, exams of course.
Wen: Exactly, and do you know who invented those?
Motion: It was Eton, wasn’t it?
Wen: Not even close. It was me and my dynasty. I had a dream of democratising the process by which people were able to enter the bureaucracy of the empire. No longer was it to be the preserve of peerage, but anyone who had the intellectual capacity for the work involved was allowed to take the test and prove their value to me. The Imperial Examination and its descendents have shaped your education system and, as a result, your entire society.
But, like anything with good intentions, you all abused it and found its loopholes. Exams are supposed to measure how skilled somebody is at a particular point in time. They are meant to be a snapshot, Andrew, a meter reading of how well somebody can work under pressure when given a series of unseen problems to solve. What is the point of an examination that you have been given two years to prepare for? Where is the democracy in that? Surely it is the people who are blessed with the more shrewdly delivered preparation that do best in the exams?
Motion: Exams or no exams, some people luck into better life chances than others, Wen.
Wen: But Andrew, examinations were designed to put everyone on a level playing field, and now they are just a hoop to be jumped through by schools. Don’t you see, that’s why there is so much laziness to be found in your pupils they see school as a place to sit in and pass the time whilst their teachers think of some way of waving their bureaucratic, manipulative wands to magic them through the next set of qualifications.
It’s not learning Andrew, it’s data manipulation. When we invented examinations we didn’t envision myriad options where some people could sit easier ones, some people could do ones that were based more around coursework and you could re-take as often as you liked.
Motion: Didn’t you just say that differentiation was important though?
Wen: It is, but if you, as a society, are going to turn the qualification process into such a strategic data-game, then why hang onto examinations at all? The idea of anybody having to tackle an important intellectual task without the benefit of Wikipedia is horrifically outmoded as it is. Why not admit that exam skills are an antiquated misrepresentation of the skills necessary to thrive in the modern Western world and be done with it?
Motion: You can’t just get rid of an important educational institution without suggesting something to put in their place? Without exams, how would we know that the teachers were even doing their job properly?
Wen: Through more regular and collaborative school inspections. Not just the Darth Vader-esque Ofsted inspections that plague a school every couple of years, forcing them to misrepresent themselves to a panel of strangers. I mean proper collaborative school improvement teams that are a friendly face and a source of guidance, rather than a feared antagonist.
Motion: This all sounds a bit wishy washy to me, Wen. And you scoffed when I suggested that I wanted my pupils to love poetry.
Wen: I wasn’t scoffing at poetry Andrew, I was scoffing at the suggestion of ‘loving poetry’ being the objective purpose of a two hour lesson. An emotional reaction should only ever be the result of a lesson’s quality, rather than its intrinsic aim. No, on the contrary, grasping poetry is probably the most relevant and useful skill that a modern pupil can learn.
Motion: You’re mocking me now.
Wen: Andrew, please. I’m not here to hurt your feelings, I want to help you. Pupils in modern schools need to learn about poetry. It’s the only way of them thriving in the era of the internet.
Motion: Go on…
Wen: Well, think about it Andrew. Our natural memories are becoming closer to obsolescence with every day that passes. Knowledge of information is a redundant skill in a world where everyone has a portal to the world wide web in their pocket. The answer to every question is just there with a few movements of your thumb.
Motion: You aren’t about to try and sell me your iPhone are you?
Wen: But what do we do with that information, Andrew? It’s useless, unless we train the mind to make links between pieces of data. Unless you can see how the theory of red shift is analogous to the Stanford Prison Experiment, what is the point of you reading about either thing? Discovering and manipulating the patterns in life is the only way to truly be a success – and what better training for that than through poetry.
By analogising the road to a ribbon of moonlight, or love to an onion, are we not learning the basics needed to take the limitless information now available to us all and use it to achieve something? Vehicle and tenor are just a training bra for effective Googling.
Motion: Would you like a copy of my book? It’s signed.