I flinch when I hear the word "experiment" on television these days, it having been established (by rigorous, blind-controlled and peer-reviewed research) that in 97.4 per cent of cases, it is simply a euphemism for "factitious, eye-catching stunt". Context makes a difference, of course, and it's true that the statistic is a little healthier when the samples are taken exclusively from Horizon. But even here you can't always guarantee that it will have any real meaning. So when the voice-over to Who Do You Want Your Child To Be?, David Baddiel's programme on the science of learning, described education as "the ultimate experiment", I tensed instinctively. Twenty minutes later, I'd unclenched again, it having become clear that the word had been thoughtfully used. Education is an open-ended experiment, in which yesterday's methods are continually being abandoned in favour of tomorrow's panacea.
Baddiel's interest, as a former guinea pig himself, and father of two current experimental subjects, was to try to find what would get the best results. Deciding what is best, as he acknowledged almost at once, can be tricky in itself. He wants his children to be happy and fulfilled, after an education that has shaped and developed their innate talents. The father of the maths prodigies he visited, on the other hand, wants them to be city actuaries and earn a fortune, an ambition they obediently parroted. This seemed a rather dismal prospect for two bright and charming children, but then, as Baddiel himself knows, one of the things that all children have to survive is the good intentions of their parents. He had himself narrowly avoided being pressed into a scientific career by his chemist father, who greeted the news that he was going to study English and history with the curt comment that it was "a waste of a brain".
Even more strikingly, for parents anxious not to fulfil Philip Larkin's bleak prediction about what mums and dads do for their children, there was some evidence that loving encouragement could be a handicap, too. Terrifyingly, an American researcher revealed that the words "You're so clever", virtually a Pavlovian reflex among liberal parents these days, however undeserved they might be, had been found to be counterproductive. The argument was this: children who believed that they were valued specifically for their intelligence tended to avoid situations that might threaten such a judgement and to conceal their mistakes. Children praised for their effort and hard work, irrespective of the final result, were more likely to take on challenges that were currently beyond them, but persist to the point of success.
Hard cash can help, too. Baddiel visited an American inner-city school where a Harvard economist was trying to short-cut the yawning gap between effort and reward, so that 10-year- olds with no family model for the benefits of education might acquire the idea that it was worth something in the long run. Students simply earn cash rewards for academic achievement, good behaviour and attendance, a programme that, although the final results aren't in, seemed to be having good results. The fact that, statistically speaking, a staggering one in three of the black boys in this school were going to be in prison in seven years' time surely justified trying something radical.
Holloway, a new ITV1 series about the largest women's prison in Europe, depicted a peculiarly useless form of education, punitive incarceration, although the regime in Holloway's special wing for young prisoners may not have looked nearly punitive enough to the short-sharp-shock brigade. The film began by goading your inner Tory into the light as Charlotte and Katy compared notes about grievous bodily harm. "I love the before, when you're about to hit someone... and I love the after, when you step away from them," confessed Charlotte, with no evident sign of remorse. "I don't know why, but I just automatically pick up weapons," said Katy, who was inside for glassing someone in the face. Throw away the key, you thought.
But then you learnt more about the girls who were in there. Most of them had spent childhoods in care, nearly a third had experienced sexual abuse and 90 per cent of them had some sort of mental-health problem or addiction. Seventy per cent of them self-harm, rendering the idea of a punitive sentence somewhat ridiculous. The warders had to spend most of their time making sure that they don't punish themselves. Twenty-year-old Kirstin rolled up her sleeves to reveal forearms like a prison calendar, as if she'd marked off the days in her own flesh. The only thing was that Kirstin was absolutely dreading getting back "on road", as they called freedom. "Any complaints, any comments?" asked the officer processing her release. "I love this prison," replied Kirstin, and within hours, as she and everyone who knew her had predicted, she was back in court, hoping for readmission to the one place in the world where she felt safe at night.
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