WHAT WE DON’T SEE FROM THE UNIVERSITY: THE BATTLE FOR SECONDARY SCHOOL EDUCATION

Every family with young children eventually faces the crisis that starting secondary education, or E.S.O., supposes for many of them. It is difficult for us, university teachers (with no children), to offer solid advice to troubled parents. This is why, seeking to help my own family, I have read a couple of excellent books on this subject.

One is very new–Pablo Poó’s Espabila Chaval: Cómo NO suspender y aprovechar tu tiempo en el instituto (2017); the other–José Sánchez Tortosa’s El profesor en la trinchera: La tiranía de los alumnos, las frustraciones de los profesores y la guerra en las aulas–is older, from 2008. Even the subtitles are worth reading! In the nine years between them, you need to realize, tablets and smartphones have become common among secondary-school children. Television, which Sánchez Tortosa hates as one of the monsters that devour children’s time, is practically a relic of the past for the new YouTube generation. They no longer text each other using Messenger or sms, but Whatsapp. This, I’m told, is fast replacing Facebook… Poó’s volume, which even offers teens advice on how to set up a successful YouTube channel based on his own experience, might soon be out-dated.

The two authors paint a very bleak panorama, using widely different styles. Poó addresses teen students (trusting that they will read a book!!!) in a fresh, straightforward language, very apt for his target readership. He offers very useful practical advice and I particularly applaud him for explaining the actual cost of living. He declares his own income and his monthly expenses, thus teaching children a valuable lesson: life is expensive, and you need a job that is rewarding but also minimally well-paid. Studying might not be a secure path towards that kind of personal success but it gives you at least a chance. There is no shortcut between failing spectacularly in school and owning a Ferrari, though it may have happen, very exceptionally. And I love the bit where he explains that Cristiano Ronaldo only wins a third of the earnings of the current best-selling author, James Patterson. So, read!

The approach chosen by Sánchez Tortosa is very different, as he is not addressing students. He is voicing aloud for any adult to hear his own feelings of disappointment and despair, common among those of us who discover that, despite our efforts, students reject learning. Tortosa’s style is somewhat pedantic but his many quotations from classical philosophers and Enlightenment pedagogues show that although teachers’ concerns with students’ difficulties have a long history, the situation today is really worrying. Unlike Poó–a cooler, happier teacher who highlights that what he is describing is mainly the students’ problem and not his–Tortosa sounds awfully bitter. His descriptions of an anarchic, unruly student body and his difficulties to keep the teens in his classroom in silence reveal an underlying, palpable sadness; also, deep sorrow for that those that, in better conditions, could learn in peace instead of wasting precious time because of their classmates’ annoying insubordination. Tortosa is very clear: when students disrupt a lesson with their misbehaviour, those who suffer most are not the teachers but the students who do believe in education. The bad dynamics of current classrooms mean that, regrettably, the most popular are also the most ignorant students because they impose with their bullying a group code that marginalizes the individuals interested in self-improving.

Although from very different stances, Poó and Tortosa agree on a basic idea: learning offers liberation from slavery; by rejecting education the current teenage generation is embracing their own oppression. Tortosa constantly refers to the Wachowkis’ trilogy Matrix (1999-2002) and to how, despite Morpheus’ efforts to free him, Cipher chooses willingly to remain enslaved to the false reality created by the dreadful machines that control human life. Each in their own style, both teachers preach the same maxim: education is not about the details of each specific subject matter; it’s about turning children into full persons who understand the world around them and who won’t be taken in by its many false allures. Or tyrants.

Poó and Tortosa focus on E.S.O., the compulsory segment of secondary education, though they also refer, logically, to what comes next, Bachillerato (and the university entrance examination, Selectividad). It is assumed that students’ negative attitude towards education improves as they move onto higher levels which they freely choose. However, reading their books, I conclude that students never shake off the idea that whatever is compulsory curtails their freedom and must be rejected. They may freely choose a university degree but still treat its obligatory aspects as shackles restraining them. This might also explain their resistance to reading in Humanities degrees what teachers select as compulsory. We should, in short, forbid reading and perhaps that might give students an enticement. Just kidding…

Many other countries suffer the situation described by Poó and Tortosa: extending compulsory education results in students’ restlessness, as their impatience with what they’re being taught grows together with their adolescent bodies. In my time as a schoolgirl (1970-1980), E.G.B. (Educación General Básica) ended at 14, which was also the age when you were allowed to take a job. This was later raised to 16 as the labour market shrank, which made it necessary to keep disaffected teens in school. Many of them would possibly be happier working for wages but employing children has now become anathema in most Western societies (except for the children of celebrities working as models… Kaia Gerber, anyone?). When secondary schools release these indifferent students into the world they have often destroyed their own chances of getting a reasonably good job by rejecting all attempts at being educated. Thus grows the notorious ni-ni generation (or ‘neets’ = ‘not in education, employment or training’), who should pay for our future retirement pensions but cannot fend for themselves.

I have been saying for years that the difference between school pre-LOGSE (1994) and post-LOGSE is that the ignorant bullies used to be the minority whereas those in the majority where the students with grades between C+ and B+. LOGSE, and the beginning of secondary education at 12, rather than 14, means that a general immaturity affects relationships in the classroom. The ignorant bullies are now the centre of attention of a lazy majority that rallies around them, while the C+/B+ students are cornered and frequently despised. I fail to understand how the A students cope, though I assume that it is with great difficulty: their absurd labelling as ‘gifted children’ only worsens the situation by making them feel like singled-out freaks, when they should be classroom leaders. As they used to be.

This perfect storm is compounded besides, as we all know, by bad parents who a) disauthorise the teachers because they believe that their children are special and unique, b) are too busy to really care to educate their children at home, c) are themselves in need of training as parents and persons. Poó begins his book by declaring “Mira, chaval, eres un privilegiado y ni siquiera te das cuenta”, not only in the sense of belonging to a relatively affluent society that thinks nothing of children provided with smartphones worth a person’s monthly salary, but also because only a minority on Earth has access to a school education. The privilege, far from being acknowledged, leads to this sense of entitlement and of arrogance we often see, to our chagrin, in the children of our own families: they have everything, they know everything, and they never listen. They have their own authorities on YouTube and whatever we may say to them is worthless. Of course, I refer here to the worst case scenario but I’m certain that the admiration I felt for a few wise adults as I grew up, and who were my role models, is now a thing of the past.

Is this ranting and raving productive? Not really but I am at a loss about how to correct the situation, even beginning with the children going astray in my family. If you read Poó’s book between the lines you will see that now and then he refers to what is actually taught in secondary schools and perhaps a key factor in the general failure is that the curriculum is not adequate. I don’t mean ‘useful’ in that utilitarian way in which students regard education (“What’s the good of learning this?”). I mean adequate in the sense of being generationally well-targeted. We have gone past the bad pedagogy that demanded learning lists of monarchs by rote but, clearly, we’re not producing a sound, updated pedagogy that attracts children (and this is not about using hip ‘modern’ technologies).

Tortosa claims that the post-Francoist project to make schools democratic has failed, and hints that the classroom should be far more authoritarian that it is now. I agree that teachers should not try to be their students’ friends (this comes once marking is over, if it comes) and I regard myself as a very strict professor. Yet, I also try to be democratic, which means that as my experience shows, when students are allowed to choose what they want to work on, they’re more creative. This does not mean that they should be able to choose the contents of the courses but that their opinion needs to be heard. Feedback certainly helps to improve our teaching and I do believe that students can provide it from the age of 12 onward.

Something else that Poó writes strikes a deep chord: an education is the way to, ideally, find a job which makes you happy. Even more ideally, a job which doesn’t feel like work. He explains how little kids usually enjoy school because they see no difference between play and study, and although I am fully aware that I am sounding here hopelessly romantic, this is what the best jobs are about. Perhaps the problem is that Poó and I myself think that teaching is perfect in that sense because it gives you the privilege of extending your education for decades by educating others. In contrast, the current teen generation sees this mixture of play and work only in the (apparently) effortless success of YouTubers, football players and models. They see how popular Instagram celebrities are and wrongly believe that this is what they are also entitled to. They do not see the much more modest rewards of daily effort because that is not part of the media and the social networks.

Teachers, besides, were people we used to admire, now we are ridiculous figures. The same applies to parents (including those who are teachers!). So, how do you convince a teen daughter/son, niece/nephew that they need to make an effort? Well, you can’t, unless they accept reading Poó’s book… which is unlikely. You, parent or uncle/aunt, perhaps grandparent, can learn what is wrong in the secondary school classroom and admire the teachers for their courage and dedication. Yet it seems to me that there is little we can do. Perhaps we could focus on the most motivated students, and ignore the others–provided, that is, none of them is in your family. Or even your own child.

In the meantime, it would be important to consider why so many of our children are so privileged, yet so ungrateful, and so fond of ignorance. Perhaps, unlike Poó, we have failed to clearly explain to them what adult life is about and have gone too far in trying to delay their assumption of personal responsibility. Just an idea.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

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