Too clever for school?

21st century teaching, far from molding the progressive citizens of tomorrow, is building a culture of wanton stupidity finds Gayle.

IT IS “not cool to be clever”, as teachers at the annual conference of the Professional Association of Teachers regretfully noted last week.

“Clever” has always been a term of abuse as well as praise. You can insult someone by calling them a “clever-clogs” or sneeringly suggest: “You think you're so clever.” Someone can be “too clever for their own good”.

Speakers at the PAT conference suggested that children should no longer be described as “clever” - teachers should use the word “successful” instead. All pupils could then be seen as successful, at their own level, in their own way.

Admittedly, some children struggle to master joined up writing, but are we saying that hard-won success in basic skills is comparable with mastering

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In a letter to the TES last week, one writer proposed that, rather than blaming poor teaching or unenthusiastic learners for the widespread inability to spell or punctuate, we should sweep away the “hundreds of nonsensical exceptions and contradictions that bedevil English spelling and grammar”, recreating the language in a simpler form.

But how easy can we make it without losing all the subtlety of expression the English language is capable of?

Of course, if you can't string two words together or remember what you learned in class, you can always get someone else to write the coursework for you.

The Qualifications and Curriculum authority is drawing up plans to have GCSE coursework completed in the classroom, under test conditions, to prevent widespread cheating by plagiarising essays from the internet or getting “help” from parents.

There is money to be made from exploiting the shortcomings of students who are too idle or incompetent to do their own work. One online essay service has a £16 million turnover, and subject specialists can earn £400 to £1,000 a week - providing they have no scruples about helping people to attain qualifications they do not really merit.

Depressingly, other speakers at the PAT conference pointed to the fact that pupils who do achieve good academic results are afraid of being labelled clever, because they would be bullied and mocked by their less able classmates.

One said that prize-winning pupils were refusing to come and accept awards, which had to be sent to them in the post so that their achievement would remain a guilty secret.

It seems we can only accept certain kinds of “success” unthreatening, low level success, nothing like excellence.

Cleverness is a classification of excellence, marking out those pupils who have grasped the basics and gone on to master higher subjects. Rather than abolishing the term, we should be working on making it more acceptable and disarming the bullies.

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