Thursday, July 16, 2009

Sue Palmer - Toxic moraliser

Sue Palmer’s one of those professional moralisers, like Lynn Truss and John Huimphries. Author of ‘Toxic Childhood’, she knows best about what’s good for us and our children. A nosy, nanny keen to blame everything on ‘being online’. She’d love to put all techies on the ‘naughty step’. She has a problem with ‘screen-based culture’ and this would be fine if she didn’t have a whacking big website which advertises her courses, books, CDs and availability as a speaker. ‘Toxic Childhood’ and ‘Detoxing Childhood’ are available on CD, from the website....

To purchase the 'Detoxing Childhood' CD for £12.00 (P&P included) click here

It’s like discovering that your drug councillors is a secret cocaine addict!

The problem with people like Palmer is the discriminatory nature of their technology choices. They love radio, especially Radio 4 and woe betide anyone who criticises their quaint, little, middle-class programmes like the Archers. They have cars, washing machines, mobile phones and so on, but when it comes to other people’s technology choices they get all uppity. She hates ‘screen-based’ culture but will appear on TV faster than a hungry whippet and will prostitute herself to The Daily Mail for any old fee.

Toxic teaching

Sue’s site is full of that ‘angry from Tunbridge Wells’ Lynn Truss stuff about apostrophes and bad spelling. You know the sort of stuff, pictures of greengrocer boards with wrong punctuation. She, of course, has the answer; her very own ‘Phonix’ (sic) course. Now, as Alison Morissette would say, isn’t it ironic, that a literacy teacher is blaming technology for poor reading, writing, speaking, punctuation, spelling and everything else, when it has been acknowledged that her own profession and professional advisers were the major cause of the problem by introducing the crazy ‘whole-word’ teaching method into our schools for two decades. We’re still reeling from the effect.

This system had no academic credibility but swept through the system, eagerly snapped up by gullible teachers, and resulted in two generations of poor literacy teaching. Doesn’t she realise that it was education that failed the people who have poor levels of literacy. It was they who were the purveyors of toxic teaching. Thankfully, more experienced teachers and academics put up a fierce battle of resistance. Many deliberately not using these methods in their own classrooms, in contradiction to their school or LEA policy. In the end good sense won out and we went back to a simpler, more sensible approach to learning how to read and write.


Rob said...

First, I should say that I don't know Sue Palmer, haven't read her book, and have no brief to defend her. I do know that she is highly regarded in primary schools, and that her books are very widely used.
I wonder though, whether she's quite as technophobic as she makes out. Her bio on her website makes a connection between her date of birth, 1948, and the coincident development of the first computer in Britain. Elsewhere, she says she and her computer are inseparable - that doesn't sound like someone who wants to put techies on the naughty step, to use your phrase.
I would imagine that it's quite likely she listens to Radio 4- she is the right age for their demographic - but so what? So do I. I also listen to Radios 2, 3, 5, 6 and 7, and Jazz FM, and a local community station. I do wonder what you've got against radio, which seems to me to be a very rich source of entertainment.
But that's by the way. The book you disparage seems to be about much more than "screen based culture": it covers, according to her website, ten aspects of childhood, including diet, sleep, exercise and childcare. So, whilst it may suggest that outdoor play might be better than yet another round on the computer game. The fact that there's a CD of the book hardly makes her the hypocrite you suggest she is, with your colourful comparison to the addicted drug counsellor (and doubtless Lynne, with an e Truss would have pointed out that error- a drugs councillor would be the member for the spliff party.)
I was also interested in your use of "prostitute herself to The Daily Mail"; I have no affection for that paper, but presumably they pay their contributors, which is all you are suggesting, I expect. Would you refuse a commission from the Mail? Or if you accepted it, would you consider that you had prostituted yourself?
Alison must be Alanis's sister. Her song, in which, as I have pointed out to generations of English students, every single example of "irony" is in fact not ironic at all, is perhaps not the best reference to make. It would certainly be ironic if her methods are so hopeless.
This articlesuggests she isn't that dogmatic about phonics.

Donald Clark said...

Let’s be quite clear about her aversion to ‘screen-based’ content. In ‘21st Century Boys’ she blames TV and computer games for the ‘freefall’ in educational standards. There is no ‘freefall’ and, in fact, their educational attainment in English has been rising (1995 45% reaching level 4, 2008 70%.

In her words, "We've got screen saturation in our homes now, and we've got lots of ways little boys can and do end up in front of screens....we're fastforwarding them into the 21st century and that is contributing to an increase in emotional behaviour and social problems."

Toxic Childhood is a toxic book castigating parents (largely the poor) for taking us towards the collapse of civilisation. Beneath the rather obvious advice is a fear and paranoia about the working class breeding like rabbits leading to ‘serious civil unrest within a generation’. Unless we ‘detoxify’ these feckless parents and their kids then we ‘educated’ folks will be overrun. I object to the term ‘toxic’ being used in this manner. It’s insulting class-based snobbery.

She’s a complete snob castigating ‘teenage mums devouring taxpayers’ money’ and poor parents as being ‘deprived, uneducated, often scarcely more than children themselves’.

At no point does she even consider the possibility that the educational system has any role in all of this. They’re whiter than white. Palmer knows full well that many of the problems in literacy were CAUSED by educational experts and teachers

Why not say so? Why put the entire blame on poor parents?

Rob said...

The article you highlight seems quite reasonable to me- she does suggest there's no single solution that works for everybody, and does, at least implicitly, criticise some experts.
I'd be very wary of using the SATs as any kind of measure of achievement in English. I suspect that if you'd suggested that attainment in English had improved by 35% in the last 13 years to a group of English teachers, you'd be met with a volley of hollow laughter.
The 21st Century Boys book is reviewed here
and you'll like the author's conclusions. If Palmer is a pick 'n' mixer with the research, though, I think she isn't as bad as Baroness Greenfield.

Anonymous said...

Hi, here I am, online (where I spend much of my time). And with no desire to put you on the naughty step.

Just to clarify: I LOVE new technology, am intoxicated by the possibilities it opens up, and thrilled to've lived through the latter 20th and early 21st century, and thus have seen so much of it happening at first hand.

My concerns about 'screen-saturation' don't relate to adults, teenagers or even kids who've successfully made it through 'toxic childhood' (which as an earlier correspondent points out, is short-hand for much, much more than screen-based culture) to around ten years old.

If you read the books you'll find it's much younger kids I'm worried about -- especially the under-sevens who are now bombarded by marketing messages in a way that's never happened before (see the clip from 'Consuming Kids' on You Tube), and the increasing numbers of under-nines who may be able to pass flawed government tests in literacy, but can't concentrate long enough to read anything more than a paragraph or two, and struggle to put together a coherent sentence.

I'm not the only one who's worried about them. Practically the entire primary teaching profession is worried, and has been since the late 90s. Their concern is vindicated by research (from the speech and language charity I CAN) showing that over 50% of children now start school with 'significant language delay'. We also have mushrooming problems with developmental disorders such as ADHD and autism, and scandalously high levels of emotional, behavioural and mental health problems among school-children.

Most of these problems are among children from disadvantaged backgrounds, and if you read Chapter 10 of '21st Century Boys' I hope you'll recognise that I'm not some sort of rampant Tory who blames their single mums. I am in fact a life-long socialist (emphatically NOT New Labour), and have spent my life trying to raise literacy standards especially in disadvantaged areas of the country.

I do believe that too much early screen-based activity (and not enough real food, real play and real interactivity) is hazarding the chances of many children -- especially the most disadvantaged children -- of growing up bright, balanced, literate and able to take advantage of the technological future.

All the best,
Sue Palmer

Wise owl said...

"This system had no academic credibility but swept through the system, eagerly snapped up by gullible teachers..." Teacher are not gullible but politicians are (it is easier to bluff a bluffer). It is politicians who impose new fads that are taken up by senior teachers trying to climb the greasy pole. Coal face teachers who appear to resist change are not Luddites, but make professional judgements on how a “new method” of teaching /working will benefit their students. If the cost/benefit analysis does not stack up then the resistance to change will be higher. Professional judgements are based on experience and do not always have the metrics available to support a judgement. A professional has tacit knowledge.

Donald Clark said...

At least there's an admission that 'senior teachers climbing the greasy pole' should shoulder some of the blame. I think this is quite wrong. The teachers I know and have spoken to on the issue were vehement in their defence of that 'disaster'. And to blame politicians is to simply reverse the causality. Politicians did not come up with 'whole-language' teaching methods in literacy - it was educational advisors. These are people with the so-called 'tacit knowledge' that proved wrong. Actually the people who were proved right were the millions of parents who were at first puzzled, then appalled at what their children were receiving at school - namely faddish, non-empirical nonsense that damaged their children's education.

The upsycho said...

Two non sequiturs:

1) I don't think anyone would accuse me of being middle-England-ish, and yet I listen to Radio 4 every chance I get... except for The Archers. To me, it's just a soap and I don't do soaps at all. But apart from that, Radio 4 is a wonderfully serendipitous learning tool for long journeys.

2) Alanis Morisette. Not Alison.

Anonymous said...

I think Sue Palmer's opinion about children spending too much time in front of t.v. & computer has credence. In addition to many social science type studies on correlations with aggressive behavior, there are now studies of brain development which indicate negative effects of early childhood t.v. viewing.

Donald Clark said...

Oh yeah - which 'brain' studies? And what about the plethora of research showing the beneficial effects?

Bob Harrison said...

What evidence is there that ASD's are more common in children from "disavantaged" backgrounds?

Absolute rubbish!

This mistake alone undermines the rest of your points Sue....

The fact is that technology is a fantastic resource for ASD's and especially Aspergers....just ask Gary Mackinnon!

Donald Clark said...

Well said Bob. I find it deeply worrying that professional 'Special Needs' advisors should be so divorced from reality in this area.