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Interview Ricardo Moreno Castillo

Friday, September 22, 2006

Interview with Ricardo Moreno Castillo

[Translation of Entrevista a Ricardo Moreno Castillo by Marcos Taracido published in Libro de Notas on 20-Sept-2006.]

The leaflet Panfleto Antipedagógico (Pamphlet against Pedagogy) by Ricardo Moreno Castillo was first published on the Internet where it circulated quickly and received much support. In it, Ricardo Moreno Castillo criticised the poor state of education that derived from the LOGSE (law for secondary education in Spain passed in 1990), a law which in his opinion undermined the most basic principles of education. He has published many books since he became Head of Department in 1975 and is a professor in the Mathematics Faculty at the Universidad Complutense. His insistence on distancing pedagogists (experts in child education) from education is shared by thousands of teachers who are daily forced to apply implausible theories in an environment that is constantly becoming more demanding. The pamphlet has now been published on paper, expanded and updated and the author maintains a blog in support of the book.

Marcos Taracido: The first version of the pamphlet on the Internet was tremendously successful and it seems that the sales of the book are following suit. Likewise, the agreement among teaching professionals is growing and they appear to support each and every one of the points that you make in the book. However, this overwhelming consensus about the problems of education and their solutions has not led to any changes in practice, politicians continue to approve reforms that do not address any one of your points and those who begin to disagree with you are distracted by other matters.

Ricardo Moreno Castillo: Yes, it is astonishing that there is such a deafness to the almost unanimous clamour for change. It is difficult to understand why this should be. I also think that it would be politically advantageous for the Socialist Party to admit their monumental error and seek to rectify it.

MT: Well, it doesn't look that way. The rather timid reforms are not leaning in that direction and all the statements by the members of the government raise the same old topics and make the same excuses. From the pedagogical point of view we continue to read the same reports that we were reading 15 years ago about school failure, which always blame the lack of motivational skill of the teachers.

RMC: Exactly, the lack of skill, that “we have not known how to change our mentality” and that we are yearning for the old times. It is easier to blame the failure of a law on circumstantial factors than on the law itself. They also put the blame on the huge number of immigrants, which is a villainy as well as being wrong. It is wicked because to put the blame for the decline in educational standards on immigrants is yet another way of inciting racism. It is wrong because immigrants have brains of the same quality as natives. If immigrants want to study seriously they need exactly the same as the Spanish who want to study seriously: an environment of silence, rigour and discipline. If you put immigrants who do not want to study into a classroom by force, their behaviour will be exactly the same as those of natives who don't want to study and are forced into the classroom: they will be disruptive, undermine the work of the teacher and will not allow those pupils who want to study to do so. No, it is not the external factors that have caused the failure of the reforms in education; it is because the law was monumentally flawed from the beginning, and it was not so difficult to predict its results. Will the politicians who voted for it realise this one day? I don't know. Up to now, Jordi Pujol has done so. A while ago, at a conference held in the Colegio de Licenciados, he recognised that the LOGSE had been an error and that his having supported it had been a mistake on his part. In fact, in the web of the Centre D'Estudis, Jordi Pujol recommends the Panfleto Antipedagógico.

MT: The LOGSE was a socialist reform and since then all those who criticise the law are associated with the right. The political dialectic seems to have spread to all of society and we are embroiled in this type of simplistic dichotomy of good and evil, right and wrong. Have you lost a lot of time explaining that your criticism comes from the left?

RMC: For sure, there are those who call me a conservative and nostalgic. Curiously this is an attack that is very similar to the one that Franco's followers made against those who were fighting the dictatorship. “You are yearning for the Republic, you are nostalgic for democracy”. But the truth is that in general, the left has understood that the reforms had the result of privileging those who could afford to send their children to an elite college and, by contrast, penalised the children of poorer parents because what they could not learn in school they could not learn anywhere else. Nowadays it is difficult to learn, unless it is with a disorientated progressive who they call a fascist for requiring discipline in the classroom and for trying to develop the habit of working in the pupils.

MT: To me it seems that society is moving towards putting children on pedestals in the worst sense of the term: not ascribing to them any responsibility - something that is completely at variance with the competitive society and what they will find when they become adults. We often find that it is the parents who support their children against the teachers, justifying all the decisions of their children. You give an example in your book of a teacher who reports his students to the police for ignoring and insulting him... It seems to me that this kind of reaction is impossible, not only because the law won't take any notice, but also because the educational environment would become untenable.

RMC: Maybe you are right, but this attitude of the parents comes more from apathy and weariness than as a positive action. You say that to take those who flout the teacher to court is unthinkable. But to do so would be to create an important movement and the court cases would accumulate. If education is a right, its denial or suppression is a crime. If suppression of education is not treated as a crime then how can we say that education is a right, protected and supported by the state?

MT: The pamphlet announces that your intention is to convince, but perhaps here its limitations begin and end: it will be read by those who are convinced, and the few who read it who are not already convinced will ignore its arguments. Perhaps what is missing is a direct call to action, action which seeks to put a brake on the current trends and go back to the past.

RMC: In order to organise direct action, what is needed is leadership ability, a quality that I lack. I have received many letters from colleagues who have read the pamphlet and their reactions make me think that it could be useful for two reasons. Some say that it expresses clearly what they have always thought to be true. This is its first purpose: to provide arguments to those who are already convinced. Others tell me that from now on, they will feel freer to criticize the education system without giving up their left wing convictions. Although it sounds strange, there were those who experienced a bad conscience for disagreeing with a law that had been presented as being so progressive. So this might be its second purpose: to reassure those who have left wing convictions and who disagree with the education reforms. Now, the fanatics in favour of the reforms, those who “believe” in them (as if a law, rather than being a human construction, were a religion), those who must champion the reforms because they are in control of the pedagogical hierarchy, these will never be convinced.

MT: There is still something very difficult to understand about all this; it is the absence of any real opposition to the law and its reforms. Perhaps those in the pedagogical hierarchy wish to support the government, but what about the large majority of the academics and a large proportion of the general public who are against the reforms, especially now after their obvious failure? How is it possible that the government can still raise the support they need to promote these absurd reforms?

RMC: This question goes hand in hand with your first question and it is something that we are all asking ourselves. Is it stupidity or is there an ulterior motive? In fact, many who defend the reform in their public statements send their children to private and religious schools. Maybe what they really want is to support private education with their famous 'reforms'.

MT: You were a teacher both before and after the LOGSE. Can you make a comparison of before and after?

RMC: Education before the reforms was far from perfect and during the later years was being corrupted by the pedagogic thinking. But there are tangible differences. To start with, a child who finished EGB (Educación General Básica - the old system up to about 14 years of age) knew more at fourteen than a child who now finishes ESO (Educación Secundaria Obligatoria - the new system up to about 16 years of age) at sixteen. In the first year of the current bachillerato (16 - 18 years old), which corresponded to the third year of the old bachillerato by age range, we have to teach things that were previously known by an average fourteen year old. Many physics and mathematics faculties in Spanish universities have introduced a so-called Course Zero where they teach very elementary but indispensable facts so that students can start on their university careers. Before the reforms, the Course Zero was not necessary. After the reforms it is essential. And the bad language that pupils can get away with in class today was never heard under the old system.

MT: It seems that you lay most of the blame for failure and low education level of the “LOGSE pupils” on compulsory education to 16 years old.

RMC: To a large extent, I do. To keep children of over 12 years old (at which age they are already completely uncontrollable) locked up in a place where they don't want to be is completely useless because there is no power on earth that will make them study if they don't want to. It is impossible to discipline them because expulsion is, for them, a prize and not a punishment. What is worse, they will be bored, they will behave badly and they will prevent others from learning properly. The teachers must interrupt their lectures four of five times a minute to call for silence and raise their voices to make themselves heard over the noise of the unruly pupils. It is very difficult to follow an involved explanation that is delivered by shouting at high volume over a constant background noise. Therefore, it is quite common for a pupil who is interested in learning to throw in the towel. The interest in learning at twelve, thirteen or fourteen years of age is still a very fragile attribute and it is very easy for it to evaporate when the environment in the classroom doesn't encourage it. Keeping pupils locked up in classrooms who don't want to be there impoverishes the school environment and puts at great risk the future of those who do want to study. When I say that from twelve years old pupils should be given the freedom to decide whether they want to study or to learn a trade, someone always says that this age is too young for someone to decide their future. It is true that this is a difficult decision and that children of twelve should not be making it on their own but with the support and advice of their parents and teachers. But if they are forced to study because it is thought that they are too young to decide their future, and they don't want to study, the only result achieved is that they will put at risk their companions' futures. They are not allowed to decide their own future but they are allowed to decide the future of everyone else. The dichotomy over whether one should or should not make a child study is a false one: it is impossible from the age of twelve onwards to make anyone study. So the real dichotomy should be stated differently: if a pupil wants to give up studying to learn a trade, will we respect his wishes or will we keep them locked up for four years, bored, and disrupting everyone else? When at the end of that time they leave school to start work, they will be workers without qualifications, cheap manual labourers for unscrupulous employers. If we had let them learn a trade as they wished to do, they would enter the world of work better qualified, they would have been more content during their training, their parents would have been happier also and the pupils, who would have failed because of the disruption of those who didn't want to study, would go on to be successful.

MT: What about the subjects a school? There is often a call to reduce the number of subjects, to focus on language, mathematics, and science and to leave out the softer subjects. To give an example, in the field of language and literature, they have reduced the 8 hours a week in bachillerato (divided into two different subjects) to three without reducing the contents of the courses.

RMC: I believe there are too many subjects. There should be fewer and they should be taught with more rigour and attention. What they have done with language and literature in the bachillerato is something that cries out for change. What is worse is that we have to teach in two years what previously we taught in four and to pupils who are more poorly prepared. This is not an exaggeration. Today, a pupil finishes ESO at sixteen knowing less than a pupil who finished EGB at fourteen. Obviously, this has not been taken into account by those who plan the bachillerato courses because this would be seen as recognising that there has been a drop in standards. As a consequence, in the first year of bachillerato (corresponding tot he third year of the old bachillerato), the mathematics teacher has to teach the simplest concepts of calculating with decimals and the most elementary geometry so that the pupils can follow the rest of the course. The physics teacher has to recap the decimal metric system. These are things that, quite frankly, we shouldn't have to do. If a pupil has got his ESO but seems to lack the basic minimal knowledge, then he should complain to the instigators of the reforms; but the teacher who accepts him into the bachillerato should not need to take responsibility for him. However, we do take on that responsibility although we are not professionally required to do so. This is an important point I wish to clarify because I have seen written in some blogs that if the reforms have not delivered the fruits that were anticipated, then this is because of teachers like the author of the Panfleto Antipedagógico. No! The results of the reform are are not as disastrous as they could have been, thanks to the majority of teachers who are doing more than their job description requires.

MT: Do you see any solution to all this? It doesn't seem that any of those responsible are prepared to do anything.

RMC: Not in the short term, but some hopeful signs are beginning to appear. Many of those who supported the reforms now appreciate in private the monumental blunder that it was, and a few have said so in public. Criticising the educational reforms was taboo but now it is possible. It is also being recognized more openly that the pedagogical theories are empty of content, jargon, pure chicanery, and that those who manipulate the jargon are the same as those who are in charge of public education. Anyone who loses the fear to speak plainly and clearly about the problems and points out those who are responsible may not be solving the problems but is making the first step in the right direction.

MT: What about teachers? There are certainly many problems in the area of the preparation of teachers: their training, the method access to those in charge, the issue of continuous learning and the absurd idea of glorifying little courses where no one learns anything.

RMC: In my opinion, the training of a mathematics teachers should be undertaken exclusively by the mathematics department, and that of language teachers be exclusively undertaken by the language department. The faculty of education must not interfere in this process. I would eliminate the little CAP (certificate of child training aptitude) courses with the stroke of a pen; no one is a better teacher for having attended them or a worse one for not attending. Access to the teaching profession should be by free and open examination, and in contrast to what has been suggested, preparation for free and open examinations to become a school teacher is a fabulous experience. You have to go back over the books and notes that you used during your education, see them in a critical light and make an effort on your own to learn things that no one has taught you. If my experience has any value, I finished school in '73 and became a teacher in '75 and I can assure you that in those two years I learned more than in the previous five. I am not going to tell you that I learned a lot because I know little, but much of the little that I do know, I owe to those two years of study. If a teacher needs encouragement to continue learning, after having become a teacher, let them go to university, write a thesis, learn subjects that they couldn't learn before, gain a further degree; they can do a mountain of things but the little courses of child education are absolutely useless. I would also eliminate the CEPs (teacher training colleges) and ensure that the training of non-university teachers is undertaken by the universities. And those who don't want to continue learning, well why should they? They have other qualities; but if you force them to take little courses, they won't learn much.

As far a being a good teacher is concerned, it is not something that you can teach anyone. More than this, it depends a good deal on memory. This seems unlikely, but it is true. Whenever I have had an incompetent teacher (and I have had a few) I was amazed at their bad memory. How could anyone forgot so quickly those things that upset you about your own bad teachers? Were they never pupils themselves? Bad teachers commit the same errors that they probably criticised their own teachers for. Why do they repeat those same errors so readily? Because they have a bad memory. Once, in the middle of the school year, I had to take over the subject of methodology due to the unfortunate death of the teacher Miguel de Guzman (who all of us who loved mathematics and his teaching remember with respect). The criticisms that I heard from his pupils about the way other teachers explained things were identical to those I had made thirty years before. So I suggested that they do the following exercise: take a sheet of paper and divide it into three columns. Then exercise your memory and remember all the teachers you have ever had. Write the good ones on the left, the bad ones on the right and the indifferent ones in the middle. When your memory gives no more names, begin to remember and ask yourselves, “What were the qualities that made the good teachers good and what were the defects that made the bad teachers bad? What aspects should they improve and what limitations do those in the middle need to overcome?” Even better, if two pupils had been friends during school and, with a few differences, had had the same teachers, then let them work on this exercise together as it is much more instructive. This exercise, of listing what makes a good teacher, is more instructive than all the courses where, more often than not, one is ashamed at those who impart them. A good teacher is one who tries to be better than the good teachers that he has had and if that is not possible, then at least to imitate them. Only good teachers will ensure that there will be good teachers in the next generation, not the pedagogists, nor the experts, nor the computers.

[Translator's note: Although this article addresses the LOGSE, which is a specifically Spanish education reform, similar conditions prevail and similar criticisms are heard of the educational systems in many other countries. The points raised and solutions proposed by Ricardo Moreno Castillo may be more widely applicable than in the national context. The following are the chapter titles from his pamphlet:
In defence of memory and contents
The lie of motivation
The fallacy of equality
The falsehood of compulsory education
Good intentions
A good education
Why one should study philosophy
Why one should not study religion in public education
Participative learning
Teacher training

Although I am in agreement with much of what he says, one thing still bothers me. If you let pupils make a choice at around twelve - whether to study or to learn a trade - what do you do with those who drop out or don't want to do either (there are sure to be some, however attractive the alternatives may seem to you or me)? You have to force them somewhere in order to prevent them from being predators (criminals) on the rest of society. National or social service with iron discipline, perhaps? Or what?]


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