Monthly Archives: October 2013

Teacher Talk: Sounding Into Ears

In the early middle agesinstruction came from didactic grammarians who taught in repetitive and boring ways… the one way catechism (literally ‘to sound into ears’) by which the master instructed his pupil.” Trivium 21c p45.

When I was at school (not quite back as far as the middle ages) we had a history teacher who would ‘sound into our ears’. He told us to open our textbooks to a certain page, instructed us to copy either from our books or from the board on which he had chalked up what was written in the textbook. He would then speak the words monotonously from the text and we were expected to write at the pace by which he ‘sounded into our ears’. Unfortunately we got bored, started to misbehave, threw things at each other, threw things out of the window, including, on one occasion, a fellow pupil who, when he went flying past the window of the class below caused a bit of commotion though no lasting damage to himself. Our teacher blamed us, shouting that we were wasting our lives.

As a poacher turned gamekeeper, I am not proud of my behaviour, but I am interested as to why we didn’t present passive ears waiting to be sounded into. I could pay attention, for example I would sit and listen to the historian AJP Taylor on television as he, without the visual gimmicks of today’s TV historians, stood and delivered lectures to camera. The great AJP was a master storyteller and he gave me a lifelong interest in history. It is not the ‘sounding into ears’ that is boring, it is how a teacher goes about it.

In ‘Why Don’t Students Like School‘ Daniel T Willingham writes: “The human mind seems exquisitely tuned to understand and remember stories.” (p51). Willingham suggests structuring lessons from stories based on the four Cs: causality, conflict, complications and character. This is a good place to start but I think it is also worth looking at the book: ‘The Seven Basic Plots‘. The author, Christopher Booker, spent years researching the idea that there are only seven stories: ‘Overcoming the Monster’, ‘Rags to Riches’, ‘The Quest’, ‘Voyage and Return’, ‘Rebirth’ and the classical narratives of ‘Tragedy’ and ‘Comedy’. I believe even a short 5 minute presentation following one of these structures could enthrall the most despondent of classes.

For those who do not feel comfortable with ‘storytelling’ structuring their talk and yet agree with Willingham that lessons based around conflict work particularly well, the art of rhetoric is the perfect option. In Trivium 21c I explore rhetoric in more detail but the following should give a flavour and a great way to structure and think about teacher talk. What follows is a glimpse at ‘the five parts of rhetoric’ as used in Ancient Greek education:

1. Invention Firstly you think about the content which you intend to teach and you draw together your ‘evidence’.  Then you establish your Ethos, your credibility, not your street cred but why you are a suitable person to teach this particular content (this is probably part of an ongoing dialogue where you communicate about why the subject you teach is important). Next you think about how to create the right mood, the shared emotion or Pathos between you and the class. You should pay particular attention to creating the right emotional charge at certain points in the lesson. Finally Logos, which is your use of reasoning and logic, and models critical thinking.

2. Arrangement: The order in which you present your talk. For this the basic six parts of oratory are useful: 1. The Exordium or ‘hook’: something that catches the class’s attention but is also central to your narrative. 2. Prothesis: you present the history of what your are talking about. 3. Partitio or division: you make the points which are uncontroversial and then the points which are contested. 4. Confirmatio or proof: you state your thinking. 5. confutatio or refutation: you refute any opposing argument 6. Peroration You sum up the arguments and leave an impression with your class about why the content matters and should matter to them.

3. Style: Low, medium or grand? Low style is ‘down with the kids’, use sparingly. Medium is probably the best for day to day teaching, but every now and then it might be good to unleash the ‘grand style’ of great oratory to lift the class to a higher level.

4. Memory If your talk is drawn from your natural memory, rather than always reading from a textbook, your credibility is enhanced. If you use powerpoint it should be your tool rather than you being its slave. Anything on your whiteboard should illustrate and not lead your talk. N.B: Natural memory which is ‘knowing your stuff’, is better than artificial memory, which is more like an actor remembering a speech.

5. Delivery: voice, gesture, posture, use of space. Without these performance skills being used to the full, the most brilliantly thought through examples of teacher talk can fall flat.

Put all this together and teacher talk can be something that enthralls a class and helps them learn and remember what you want them to learn and remember. Sounding into ears can be a very effective way of teaching if you do it effectively.

Monkeying About: A Roy Hodgson moment

Reading about Roy Hodgson’s ‘space monkey’ joke and how it has caused a furore reminded me of an incident in school about five years ago. I was walking through a corridor when a white year eight girl went past me with a little, and he was very little, black year seven boy who she had on ‘a lead’ (a piece of string attached to his school tie). In itself this was unusual enough, but she was encouraging him to follow her by cajoling him with the phrase: “Come on my little Monkey!” I stopped her immediately: “Excuse me,” says I, “What did you just say?!?” To which she replied innocently: “I said ‘come on my little monkey’, sir.” I looked at her and said: “You can’t say that, you can’t call him your little monkey!” The boy who looked very upset said to me: “But I AM her little monkey sir, and she’s taking me back to the zoo!” Now I was very flustered, a white girl with a black boy on a lead and her calling him a little monkey was surely a clear-cut case of racism. Yet they both looked at me so innocently, and I could tell they didn’t want me to spoil their ‘imaginative game’. I prevaricated, I muttered something about how you shouldn’t say such things, so be careful or something and I let them carry on. They went away with the joie de vivre of two little children playing a great game.

The innocence of the children makes me laugh but the event still disturbs. Should I have dealt with it differently? I wonder if I had reported it what the reaction would have been to the black and white words on the page away from the context of the actual event…

The Battle of the Blob

Michael Gove has  deblobbed in Austria. Now, with evangelical  zeal, and the rhetoric of social justice, he wants to irrigate the flabby educational colon of its sticky blob. This blob values Marxism, fights excellence and tries to prevent the poorest children from getting the education they need. In the same way as the Athenian State, which came to see Socrates as a danger to its traditional values and institutions and accused him of being a “corruptor of the young”, Gove is offering the blob a cup of hemlock so that they might imbibe and die. Just as Gove’s health farm drink of ‘Epsom salts and magnesium citrate’ reduced his blob, so the ‘Enemies of Promise’ too will disappear. For their part some of the accused ‘blobbers’ wrote to the Times firing their vitriol towards Gove saying, that because of his policies ‘there will be devastating consequences for children’s mental health‘. They seem to forget that the same utilitarian tanks were parked on education’s lawns under the last ‘progressive’ Government. Centralised diktats about curriculum, assessment and accountability did not result in a letter to the Times from the concerned 200 about children’s mental health over the previous thirteen years. Gove, the blobbers argue, is taking the curriculum backwards, with his emphasis on facts, uniforms and discipline, whilst they want education to focus on: creativity, character, critical thinking and collaboration. Gove, though describing his mission as progressive, is certain that traditional, knowledge-centred education is right and the blob is equally certain that progressive, child-centred education is right. If both sides are so certain, can we be certain that one side is entirely wrong?

In his article in the Daily Telegraph James O’Shaughnessy writes that the: “education system has been riven by an acrimonious debate about what children are supposed to get out of their time in school.” He goes on to argue that we should overcome the false dichotomy between progressives and traditionalists: “by persuading schools to deliver rigorous academic study while also equipping pupils with traits they need to flourish as humans”. The reason this sounds so easy is because his analysis sounds right, and his solution is simple, but he’s wrong, the dichotomy is not false, it is real! It is an age old battle that goes beyond the confines of our schools and is rooted in how both sides understand the world. It is the expression of the complexity behind what it means to be human. This will not be solved by traditional lessons rubbing along in harmony with teachers paying attention to pupils’ well-being. A ‘liberal arts’ education holds the traditional and the progressive sides of the education debate together through a contradictory state of creative tension and not by teaching a bit of happiness alongside history.


In my book Trivium 21c I write about the awkward relationship between knowledge and critical thinking, cultural literacy and creativity. I use the trial of Socrates and the hemlock cup as a metaphor for the age old battle between culture and anarchy, truth and doubt, and beauty and nihilism. The book concludes that as educators we need to embrace the very real dichotomy between tradition and progress and in order to do this we need to be less certain of being right about things and entertain the difficult question: what do I know?

Roger Scruton in a piece entitled: ‘The Questions That Have No Answers‘ writes: “If we look around ourselves today, we see a mass of ready-made answers and very few attempts to define the questions that would justify them.” This is certainly true of education yet both sides of the dichotomy say they know the answers: one side knows what skills our kids need for the 21st Century, and the other knows what it is they need to know. But we don’t know either, we can only guess.  Scruton goes on to write: “What makes us human is that we ask questions.” Can traditionalists and progressives ask themselves this question: Is it possible that they might not have all the answers?

Our lives are fascinating ventures into the unknown and this needs to be reflected in our schools. As Scruton puts it: “In art it is always as though the question is what the work of art is really about.” The same is true of the liberal arts, an important part of education is our continuing to question what education is really about. Our need is not to fashion an easy answer but to hold the competing ideologies together in an awkward contradictory balance, as we do in liberal democracies. Education is intrinsically human and therefore it belongs to all; whether conservative or radical, and it is frail, flawed and fantastic because of it. I may be wrong but I think it would be healthier if, rather than forever trying to win the battle of the blob, both sides started to question what education is for at a very deep, human level, be open to doubt and to not seek easy answers. In every school and classroom we should clash along together, uncovering some answers and certainly more questions to be asked.