Justin Bieber could teach kids a thing or two about history (Independent)

When it comes to the thorny question of education, there are plenty of points of view around, with Michael Gove urging more rigour and the teaching unions staunchly opposing his plans.

But left or right-wing, one thing we’d expect everyone to be united on is that a teenage pop star probably doesn’t make the best history teacher.

Yet thanks to Justin Bieber’s arguably inappropriate guestbook comment, this week some of Britain’s youngsters may have had their first exposure to the Holocaust and to teenage diarist Anne Frank.

His fans certainly think that’s the case. “Reading tweets I saw that other teens my age and some who were even older had no clue who Anne was, which really surprised me,” says Leah, 15, whose Twitter handle even has “Bieber” in it. “If he and other celebrities begin to mention more icons like Anne then it will help.”

“Justin is someone people look up to, so they may want to find out more,” adds avowed Belieber Emily, 16.

Given that Justin is unlikely to follow his tour of The Anne Frank House with a trip to the Somme – “where did they plug their ipods in?” – or start quoting Shakespeare on Twitter, we can leave the rights and wrongs of his tribute to one side. But the incident raises the question of role models, and whether it is worrying that many teenagers would rather look up to Jessie J or Harry Styles than Anne Frank.

“On the whole their role models are celebrities or sports stars,” says secondary school religious studies teacher Simon. “Most of them have a few who they see as somebody to look up to – who they are rather obsessed with and drool over.”

But other teachers point out that pupils often consciously choose not to follow the crowd, and say we should give them more credit. “In my college it’s more about Beyonce, Nicki Minaj and Kendrick Lamar,” says history A Level teacher Andrew. “Some idolise them uncritically, others just appreciate their films or music but recognise their fallibility.”

“My pupils talk about celebrities a lot, often expressing admiration,” says Josh, a secondary school science teacher. “However, do not underestimate their ability to decide make their own opinion of what is worth following. With boys and footballers – they are just as likely to view them negatively as positively.”

Simon used Bieber’s gaffe to start a discussion about the surrounding issues in a Monday lesson. As a football fan, he finds it can be useful for pupils to “know that you are interested in things they are interested – teachers who can’t sometimes struggle relating to the kids.”

Although he wouldn’t generally cite a specific celebrity, he would introduce a topic with “an analogy with something in their cultural realm.”

“Some of them were talking about football violence today [after clashes at the FA Cup semi finals],” he adds. “If something in the media tickles their interest they are much more likely to talk about it than If I say ‘let’s discuss racism.”

“If in my case Justin was to tweet about an issue, I know that the next morning my friends and I would be discussing it,” says Leah. “If Justin and other celebrities did mention Anne and other icons from history then they would definitely get people’s attention.”

“I find the use of ‘celebrity’ in the classroom extremely powerful. It can introduce young people to topics in a manner that parents and teachers are simply unable to,” explains Josh, “But for some students, if used as anything more than simply a ‘hook’ it can blind them to the real lesson. And there is certainly a danger when the celebrity does not know much of the world they are stumbling into, such as Bieber and the Holocaust.”

Of course, it is tricky territory; one pupil’s idol is another’s laughing stock. More than that, there’s the worry that a onetime mention will be interpreted as an endorsement of everything that celebrity does. Simon refers to one pupil, who changes her hair in response to her favourite star’s prerogative. “What if that celebrity started to self harm?” he asks.

And teen idols, from Lindsay Lohan to Miley Cyrus, are known for falling from grace – in different ways of course. Bieber might be reminding his fans about the Nazis this week, but what if he gets into a brawl tomorrow? “It can lead to certain difficult questions down the road,” says Simon.

According to Jonathan Freeman, national director of mentoring network Mosaic, the real problem is when they lack additional role models within their own lives.

“The young people with whom we work recognise very clearly that media stars rarely offer them a realistic goal to which to aspire,” he says. “Sadly, too few have examples of individuals who have achieved significant success in their careers from within their own social and family networks.”

It’s not always an option to brush a celebrity’s behaviour under the carpet, especially when pupils see that person as a role model. Teachers have to proceed with caution, but they also have to engage with what their pupils are talking about. “A good teacher will always find a way to help students relate to any subject,” says Josh. “A celebrity is simply one tool.”

And those complaining of the dumbing down of a generation would do well to remember that Anne herself had posters of her idols on her walls, as many teenagers do today.

“Is it worrying at 14?” asks Simon. “For the most part they grow out of it and realise it’s immature to see that person as a role model. I can’t imagine too many of them being obsessed with Jessie J at university.”

To see the original and read the comments, click here.


How education – and fun – can continue throughout the summer (The Times)

When the school bell rings on the final day of the academic year, you can almost taste the anticipation; six odd weeks of freedom, of mornings in bed, afternoons spent in the delirium of having nothing pressing to get on with and evenings without the burden of homework.

But as has been a subject of debate on the pages of The Times and elsewhere, not everyone benefits from the break. Too many pupils slip in the absence of a structured timetable and a teacher to guide them.

Short of cutting the summer holiday – already among the shortest in Europe – as Janice Turner suggested, the summer slide is inevitable. Or is it?
Education doesn’t have to be in the classroom. It doesn’t have to involve a whiteboard, or “Miss” at the front of the room explaining a topic and handing out worksheets. Education doesn’t have to be formal.

This post first appeared on The Times School Gate blog. Read the rest here.

Cooking Up A New Curriculum (Huff Post UK)

How do you boil an egg?

It’s not a ridiculous question. In fact, it’s one some of the most well-educated and intellectual people out there would struggle with.

They might be clued up on Chaucer and know Tolstoy to a T, but ask them about baking, boiling or frying and, quite often, they will be stumped for an answer.

I’m generalising of course. It’s not just the straight-A students who lack life skills, it’s everyone.

By the time the national curriculum was introduced in 1988, home economics was “food technology” and regarded as akin to design and technology. Politicians have occasionally brought up a return to practical cooking in schools – Ed Balls prompted much debate with such a pledge in 2008 – but the reality is, too many school-leavers have never been near a saucepan or an oven glove.

It’s not just cooking. It’s everything from changing a light-bulb to cleaning a loo.

As a rent-paying adult in a full-time job, I’ll freely admit that I’m still blurry on the nuances of mortgages, tax bands and interest rates. I’ve spent more hours than Jimmy Wales intended on Wikipedia, familiarising myself with everyday concepts like ISAs or credit ratings. Better that than to admit I’m clueless.

It’s time to address just how clueless we are.

We’re taught “No to drink and drugs” or “Don’t have unprotected sex”, but less time is dedicated to life skills like basic finances, reading the electricity meter or following the instruction manual for IKEA flat pack furniture.

This post first appeared on Huffington Post UK. Read the rest here.

New College: a degree from A Good University

Depending on who you talk to, the planned New College of the Humanities is the saviour of British education or its death knell.

To some, setting up a private college is a long-overdue move to put Britain back into competition with the diverse (and pricey) halls of academia across the Atlantic.

To others, it’s a step backwards, a return to a time when higher education was limited to the sons (not daughters) of the wealthy and entitled.

As a graduate, I, like most of the most disgruntled commentators on the subject, won’t be able to study at New College. Though my graduate status isn’t the biggest obstacle; I’m not sure where in my pockets I’d find the £18,000 fees.

But while I can understand the rage about the price, I can’t get too excited about the “controversial” news that the College will teach “exactly the same syllabuses as the University of London” at double the price. Because it’s only the tip of a much bigger iceberg.

If I were a student at the University of London, I’d consider myself unbelievably lucky to be able to study on a course deemed exemplary by a bunch of Britain’s brightest intellectuals – but not pay what they considered it to be worth.

Students are chuffed when a bottle of wine is on BOGOF at the supermarket. I’d say a half-price degree would merit at least a cheer.

But more importantly, I think the critics have resoundingly missed the point. It doesn’t really matter what the New Collge students learn. They could spend their days finger-painting and meditating, safe in the knowledge that the hefty fee thair devoted parents forked out for will net them A Degree From A Good University.

A university degree is – and has been for a long time – about the piece of paper at the end and also what logo is on that piece of paper.

Whatever the content of the course at Cambridge was, compared with the content of the course at the University of Nowheresville – even if the content was exactly the same – Cambridge is always going to look more impressive than Nowheresville on a CV.

Students, the savvy ones anyway, choose their universities based on prestige.

I’m sure there were plenty of universities around Britain with politics courses tailored to what I wanted to study, but one of my key considerations was how well my choice of campus would be regarded.

Place trumped course, because I knew few employees would be interested in the specifics of what I studied. I knew they’d care far more whether it was a Red Brick or a former poly.

New College could end up with a terrible reputation. If it does, the critics can pat themselves on the back and go away smug in the knowledge that education is not for sale even though a few fools spent a lot of money trying to buy it.

But if it does grow to rival Oxbridge or the Ivy League, applicants will want to go there because of that, not because of what they could learn when they get there. How many Oxbridge applicants study the module guides (except as interview fodder)? Most of them see Oxbridge, not any particular course, as the holy grail.

To answer Shakespeare, when it comes to higher education, there’s an awful lot in a name.

Education should be the point of university, but it’s never going to be, so long as league tables are published and universities focus on publicity and self-promotion at the expense of teaching.

Attacking New College for playing the system at its own game is not going to change that.

What LBJ could tell the Lib Dems about tuition fees

I interviewed a teenage Liberal Democrat activist in February, for a piece on youth apathy.

He told me that when out canvassing, the party’s stance on university fees was a real vote winner. It set them apart; it suggested they were fighting the students’ corner.

Now let’s recall what was said by Nick Clegg before the election:

“The Liberal Democrats are different. Not only will we oppose any raising of the cap, we will scrap tuition fees for good, including for part-time students.

“Students can make the difference in countless seats in this election. Use your vote to block those unfair tuition fees and get them scrapped once and for all.”

“Only the Liberal Democrats are committed to scrapping tuitions fees altogether and oppose any attempt to raise them.”

“Despite the huge financial strain fees already place on Britain’s young people, it is clear both Labour and the Conservatives want to lift the cap on fees. If fees rise to £7,000 a year, as many rumours suggest they would, within five years some students will be leaving university up to £44,000 in debt. That would be a disaster.”

Lovely words from the deputy prime minister there. All the lovelier for the news that, as the BBC reports:

“Lord Browne’s review is expected to recommend scrapping the upper limit on tuition fees in England.”

It was always unlikely that the costs of university education would survive unchanged as the Government seeks to cut costs. Before the election, it became increasingly clear that this was a possibility under whoever got in – Labour or the Conservatives.

But it was a major plank of Lib Dem policy agenda before the election. They campaigned on it, they threw mud at their opponents on it.

Sure, they don’t seem too happy about going back on their promise. Plenty have promised to rebel, and it’s likely any rise will happen without a fight from the party faithful.

But it will probably be a fight for nothing. Clegg is in the coalition, and however bitter this defeat is it’s unlikely he’ll be willing to sacrifice his position to prevent it.

When Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, the Democrat president is said to have sighed:

“There goes the South for a generation.”

With this reversal (for it can only be called that), how many generations of the “yoof vote” will the Lib Dems be kissing goodbye to?