A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

"Clever" is the new "failure" in England

Apparently, this time of year is always good for a story from some of our colleagues in the UK. Last year it was a motion to stop using the word "failure." This year, "clever" is in the crosshairs at the Professional Association of Teachers meeting in Oxford:
Teachers have been told they should stop telling their pupils they are clever, because it is "uncool" and could put them off learning.

Instead, delegates at the 34,000-strong Professional Association of Teachers annual conference in Oxford heard yesterday, they should use words such as "successful".

Simon Smith, a teacher from Sweyne Park school in Rayleigh, Essex, told the conference: "I am sorry to say a culture has developed that mocks being clever. We should fight against it: change the language that we use, change something.

"I have talked to various pupils. They said being clever meant you were boring, lacked personality, were a teacher's pet and other things not polite enough to mention in company such as this. With a few exceptions, including sport, academic prowess is in many eyes not 'cool'. We need to change this, perhaps by changing the language we use. 'Clever' suggests to me a pure academic ability, passing exams at A grades.

"This is how pupils see things. If we were to use the word 'successful' rather than 'clever', we could all achieve it at our own level and in our own way."

Ann Nutley, from Bacon's College in Southwark in south London, said pupils often did not turn up for their awards at school prize-givings "because it is not cool to be seen to be walking up to the stage to receive your prize".

Wesley Paxton, of the East Ridings of Yorkshire, said achievers and Nobel Prize winners were never considered to be celebrities. "Some so-called self-made men can be almost proud of not having done well at school," he said. He cited Sir Alan Sugar, Sir Richard Branson and David Beckham.

Well, at least this time they're not blaming us for this trend, although I suspect we certainly have kids who think the same way here in the US.

But Mr. Smith's comment intrigues me. Are the words "successful" and "clever" synonymous?

The three men cited later as being role models are certainly recognized as successful. Mr. Sugar is famous in the UK as the billionaire host of the British version of The Apprentice and as founder of an electronics and communications company. Mr. Branson, of course, is even more filthy rich, having founded Virgin Records (where he is hopefully one day going to be held accountable for inflicting Boy George and Culture Club on an already musically-reeling world), Virgin Mobile, and Virgin Atlantic Airways, not to mention doing all sorts of crazy stunts far more successfully than Steve Fossett. He also has had his own reality TV show. Mr. Beckham, unfortunately known to soccer-stupid Americans only as Mr. Posh Spice or as a pioneering metrosexual man not afraid to get manicures or wear a sarong in public, when in reality he's one of the most gifted British footballers and the only British player to score in three World Cups.

But are these men clever? Remember, clever has a different connotation here in the US than it does in Jolly Old England-- we tend to use the term "smart." Probably the American version of Mr. Sugar and Mr. Branson might be Bill Gates, who famously dropped out of Harvard to found a little software company aeons before any of us knew that a computer didn't need its own room. Mr. Beckham, while no doubt an admirable human being who contributes loads of attention to UNICEF and other charities, has not ever been described as brilliant --other than physically.

The second question is this: does praising students for being smart actually discourage them from pursuing knowledge? I have not noticed this with most of my students. Although I have students who wouldn't be seen dead with a book in their hand, I wouldn't quanitfy this as an epidemic severe enough to ban the use of a word like "smart" in the classroom.

Well, what do you think?


At 8/8/06, 1:18 PM, Anonymous MellowOut said...

Just the thought of banning what are ultimately innocent words (in the right context, of course) makes me sick.

At 8/8/06, 4:09 PM, Blogger anonymous educator said...

Depending on how horribly kids in England react to the word "clever," it might make sense.
I can think of several words that I should probably stop calling my students.

At 8/8/06, 7:24 PM, Blogger Fred said...

I think we should stop going to conferences, and start preaching accountability and common sense. And, get rid of the unions that preach the status quo.

(Sorry if that offends anyone.)

At 8/9/06, 3:40 PM, Blogger David said...

Obviously, there are ways to be successful without being "clever" in the academic sense...being very good (and lucky) at a sport or at popular music, for example. But the specific competence we look to schools for has to do with academic smarts. What they should be doing is working to demonstrate to students and parents the importance of academic smarts, rather than emphasizing the importance of the non-academic stuff that is already being emphasized elsewhere.

Truth is, there seem to be a lot of people in school systems--especially among administrators--who don't particularly value knowledge and the teaching thereof.


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