Are there some students who are just not academic?

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It is a common trope: some students are just ‘not academic’ and are therefore not suited for the kind of curriculum schools have to offer. Instead, they should be able to access vocational courses.

I used to be involved in a project at a school in England to widen access to such courses – I was charged with helping create vocational diplomas in areas such as hairdressing and information technology. Diplomas never really got off the ground in the way that was intended and it may be worth reflecting on why. In England, vocational routes have often been seen as a kind of second-rate education.

Why is this? In my view, this is because vocational education is framed negatively as something you do if you are ‘not academic’ rather than as a positive choice. This argument was rehearsed again recently by Baroness Garden of the UK Liberal Democrats, only this time with the implication that a lack of options for less academic students may have caused a growth in gang involvement. It is easy to paint the Baroness and former French teacher as an elitist and with some justification: claiming that the ‘highly’ academic school curriculum is not fit for 50% of students is halfway along the argument towards educational streaming and selective schools. However, I think the issue is a little more complex than that.

I have met plenty of 14-year-old students who profess a lack of interest in the school curriculum. If you take your cue from educational progressivism and its characterisation of the pure, uncorrupted child as being a beacon of truth then it is hard not to listen and design a curriculum around their wishes. I do not subscribe to this ideology and yet, for some of these children, I suspect they may be right and that the workplace would be a better environment for them to further develop than school. This is not because I think these children have ‘not academic’ stamped somewhere into their DNA but because they have been repeatedly and systemically failed by the education system. Even then, I wonder if some would still benefit by targeted academic intervention.

Academic learning starts with learning to read. Various estimates suggest that by using the most effective classroom approaches to teaching reading and coupling these with targeted interventions for students who struggle, upwards of 95% of students can be taught how to read to within the current average range of reading ability (e.g. here and here). There will still be some young people with a range of cognitive impairments who the best teaching will never reach, but they are relatively few in number.

Unfortunately, the proportion of poor readers is currently far greater than this – some estimates place it at around 38%. If a student cannot read very well then school will confront them on a daily basis with this failure and they are unlikely to enjoy the experience. This failure will be compounded in every other subject that derives from reading i.e. the academic curriculum. It may be these students who go on to be labelled as ‘not academic’ by parents and teachers.

What is the harm? Surely we need factory workers just as we need accountants? Even if young people are selected into these roles somewhat arbitrarily, does this not still serve a valuable sorting function?

It is tempting here to make an instrumental argument. It is of the zeitgeist to claim that jobs of the future will require higher levels of education; that factory work will die out due to automation. There are complexities within this – perhaps unskilled manual work will be replaced by robots but exactly when will we no longer need plumbers? – and yet the instrumental argument is a complete red herring.

A ‘red herring’? What’s that? The concept of a ‘red herring’ is a cognitive tool we have developed to describe something that is misleading and that will send us down the wrong path. Another such tool may be ‘the boy who cried wolf’. I can drop a red herring or a boy who cried wolf into an argument without have to explain what they mean and so we can start our discussion a bit higher up than would otherwise have been possible. This is similar to the process of drawing from schema in long-term memory in order to solve far more complex problems than would be possible if each element had to be processed in limited working memory.

Essentially, an academic education provides us with a multitude of such cognitive tools or schemas of varying levels of sophistication and these enable us to solve more complex problems. We draw on such tools from the realms of literature, mathematics, science and history, to name just a few. And the notion of solving problems should be understood in the widest possible sense. We are not just talking about solving for x in an algebra problem, we could be discussing the problem of understanding how a trade deal between countries works or of appreciating a piece of art. That’s what education equips us to do, whether we go on to university or not.

Put it this way: when your fellow citizens, including plumbers and the factory workers, go out to vote, do you want then to have plenty of cognitive tools at their disposal? Because I think it is in your interests that they do.

Once we have addressed reading failure and have the basic spine of academic learning in place, I am comfortable for students to be able to select into certain high quality vocational options from the age of 14 onward. As with all learning, although I do not believe in giving students a free choice right from the outset, there is a gradual release of control that has to be in place if students are to become independent adults. But choosing to study car maintenance, for instance, should not about whether a student is ‘academic’ or not, it should be about a love of cars.

7 thoughts on “Are there some students who are just not academic?

  1. “All our kids deserve a future.” That is the common theme expressed by Joanne Jacobs, an American blogger on education. She methodically surfs for stories — good and bad news — about education. Often, she highlights discrepancies that anyone in their right mind would be outraged about. Example: The indisputable correlation between illiteracy and incarceration, and the fact that males are the chief inmates in prisons.

    She is not the only one in fact who brings up this “school-to-prison pipeline” connection. Every parent group that advocates for special needs students is well aware of this fearsome link.

    Joanne’s latest post on the incongruities arising because of policies, or lack thereof, that result in unintended consequences is about the fact that females are now outpacing males in college: https://www.joannejacobs.com/2019/11/iceland-where-are-the-college-men/ After the article, at least one comment elaborates on this concern.

    I am so glad that Greg is bringing forward this topic: Perhaps simplistically he is just repeating the perennial question: What are schools for? But, he frames the issue around “academics”. At any rate, hope this engenders a good discussion, deep soul-searching, and maybe some resolve to improve the life chances for all children.

  2. Hey Greg,

    Long time reader, second time commenter.

    “This is not because I think these children have ‘not academic’ stamped somewhere into their DNA but because they have been repeatedly and systemically failed by the education system.”

    Can you fill me in on what drives your hesitation regarding DNA determining academic and non-academic, and the preference to lay the cause at the feet of education methods?

    I am the middle child of a family of five children. Same parents. Same schools. Same teachers. Eldest sister had to kick her guts out to eke out an OP5. Older brother worked hard and got a 10. Academics came to me as naturally as breathing, but I invested my entire senior years into my Counter-Strike obsession instead of trying and got an OP3. Younger sister worked average and got an 11. My youngest brother followed in my Counter-Strike footsteps and got an OP15.

    The only explanation that makes sense there is that I lucked in to some natural ability with thinky type stuff which carried me despite my character failings, in the same way DNA handed my younger brother one hell of a sprinting ability I could not match. He also is a natural with all things tools, whereas I can’t handyman my way out of a paper bag. My older sister has an eye for colour and design that I cannot match.

    To which of my teachers or education technique do we blame for this massive variation? Or did my parents method of child rearing vary so wildly between each little human that they caused the different outcomes?

    Surely in your own teaching career you’ve run into the genius sibling with a bunch of average brothers and sisters? I know I have.

    Different genes leading to different talents and personalities makes the most sense to me, without completely discounting the effect of nurture.

    1. Doesn’t Greg address this with his point that with the best approach 95% of the population can achieve the reading standard.
      So for 95% of people learning to read should be a very satisfying and empowering experience that while taking some effort feels very satisfying.
      If we are only getting 62% we are wasting a lot of people’s time (students, teachers, parents, and the genetically lucky that could get further if people had the time for them) and we are leaving a large population with a negative view of school, education and literacy regardless of their genes.

    2. Though good points are made re DNA, I want to get back to Greg’s point re “repeatedly and systemically failed by the education system”. IF 95% can be taught to read, WHY AREN’T THEY? If there is a direct correlation between illiteracy and incarceration why isn’t there more attention to this dismal fact, and why does denial of services (refusal to teach reading) still a factor in so many schools? The facts claim that if a student is unable to read at grade level at the end of Grade 3, then a predictable slide in academic and personal self-worth may appear (Matthew Effect).

      Now, if that doesn’t constitute a form of criminal negligence I don’t know what does. When will we see a court challenge on behalf of someone whose trajectory of delinquent and criminal behavior can be traced to a school’s conscious neglect?

      In Canada we had a case that took 15 years through the courts that finally established the right to services for students with learning differences. A law professor said: “ . . . this may be the most important human-rights case in the last decade . . . ” That was a start.

      However, we still need a case of a harmed student who ended up in jail for serious criminal behavior after years of inadequate teaching to read. I think this short summary of that Canadian case illustrates my point.
      https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/british-columbia/school-discriminated-against-boy-by-cutting-special-needs-program-top-court/article5152791/

  3. Interesting article on academic studies vs vocational skills. One should follow their interests and the skill just falls into place naturely. Alot of skilled workers have jobs, but alot of academics fail out in the real work. However, automation is replacing skilled workers in motor engineering, self-checkouts, etc. If they have not found an automation e.g plumbering, it will be found one day. Then how are the skilled workers going to survive? I personally avoid automated processes, in preference of real-life interaction and mainly to do my part in saving humans from losing their jobs to machines. Academic or skilled roles, all are in danger of being replaced by machines. So is education the future, or is education the cause of destruction of the future. The more educated humans are, the more innovative ideas are developed in technology, etc. What direction is education taking humanity towards?

    1. The problem with “automation will replace everyone” is that it runs directly contrary to actual history. Over time the working population has steadily increased as a proportion. No previous revolutions in the way work is done has had the long term effect of reducing employment. (I’m not a great believer in “this time it will be different, because reasons”.)

      Wealth from automation allows us to have new things and services. That more than absorbs the difference. If you look around the world, the rich countries not only have greater employment, they are taking in workers from poor countries.

      Plumbing might be automated, although I doubt it. But someone still has to quote, organise the job, ensure it does what it is meant to and tidy up. Despite spreadsheets, we still have accountants.

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