Monthly Archives: April 2016

Shakespeare’s Schooling


Shakespeare’s Trivium, ‘The whining schoolboy …creeping like snail unwillingly to school’

It is not too hard to see Shakespeare in the schoolboy creeping snail-like to school – but thank goodness he didn’t play truant. The education he received at Stratford Grammar School is reflected in his plays. The aim of the school would have been to teach Latin and provide a solid grounding in classic Roman, Greek, and biblical texts, as well as teaching ethics and religion. Classes would begin at six o’clock in the morning, with breakfast at nine. This would be followed by more study from quarter past nine to eleven. There would then be school dinner and a break from study until one o’clock, after which there would be further study until five. Finally, this extended school would serve supper, and six or seven pupils would formally present what they had learnt that day – or, on Fridays and Saturdays, review the week’s learning. One week every school year would be devoted to the pupils reciting their learning for the year.

The method of learning was through the trivium. Grammar would generally be studied first, in order to learn the precepts. As Shakespeare got older, he would have moved on to logic as a tool of analysis and rhetoric as a method of composition. Texts would be studied to look for evidence of how they used the three arts of the trivium (grammar, argument, and style), and then little William would have practised using the arts through copying, writing, and speech making. It is likely that his schoolmasters also taught contemporary literature and debate rather than just logic.

Such exercises in exploring rather than solving arguments are just the sort of thing that might have inspired a young dramatist in his playwriting. Clearly, Shakespeare uses this exploratory art in his most famous speech, ‘To be or not to be’, in which Hamlet goes through self-reasoning, or anthypophora, a rhetorical device he may well have learnt at school. In her superb book, Shakespeare’s Uses of the Arts of Language (2005[1947]), Sister Miriam Joseph explores how Shakespeare’s education – and, in particular, the trivium – is reflected in his plays…

Could the underlying method of Shakespeare’s education, the trivium, offer a blueprint upon which to build a contemporary approach to teaching and learning?

I answer this question in the book: Trivium 21c (spoiler: the answer is yes)…

And further explore in the forthcoming book: Trivium in Practice due to be published at the end of May 2016.

The above extract about Shakespeare’s schooling is taken from Trivium 21c, I reproduce it here on the event of the 400th anniversary of his death. 

Schools, Business and ‘Providing Intelligence’


As April is the cruelest month I take a jaunt down by the river and see how things are progressing, so much building is going on, people moving in, putting plant pots on their balconies, and a bike on the nineteenth floor. Down on Greenwich Reach potential purchasers are promised property that combines: “…brilliant architecture, breathtaking views and sophisticated living accommodation, New Capital Quay provides a dynamic fusion of exclusive apartments attracting owner/occupiers, investors and tenants alike.” The glass fronted dynamism faces across the river the taller glass dominated offices of Canary Wharf, this is the brave new world.

The river sweats
Oil and tar
The barges drift
With the turning tide
Red sails
To leeward, swing on the heavy spar.
The barges wash
Drifting logs
Down Greenwich reach
Past the Isle of Dogs.

The old wasteland is still visible alongside the new one, not so dynamic anymore, the barges offer industrial colour and the red sails take tourists and office parties up and down the river. The Isle of Dogs is to be renamed the Isle of Designer Dogs, the residents are all Cock-a-Poo…

Progress is inevitable, but not inevitably better, we always take the rough with the smooth, the same is true of our brave new world of schooling. The decline into our contemporary educational wasteland might have started when some schools called themselves ‘academies’ but I think the worst sign was when some tried to ditch the idea of schooling entirely by calling themselves ‘learning villages’. Turning schools into villages is the same trick an estate agent uses to make some glass effrontery seem cutesy and community based. How many ‘investors’ are being attracted to London’s property market? Good place to park some money…

It is all about money, right? That Independent schools, used to being in the market place, might be entrepreneurial and look to the well heeled communist and business families of China as sources of income is understandable but an English State school too? Over 40 private schools have campuses in Asia and the Middle East we are told in this piece in the Telegraph  and now “The trust that runs Bohunt Liphook academy in Hampshire will open a new school in Wenzhou in 2018.” Yes, the school that took part in a telly programme to see if Chinese methods of teaching were more effective than ours; that the Chinese ‘won’ that particular game is of no consequence, as an English education as a ‘brand’ is easily sold abroad. Some money raised on the backs of the fee payers in the far east will be ploughed back into the state school academy trust in England. Schools are becoming more like businesses, they might be a good place to park some money for investors looking to see how the markets might be moving.

You would think that businesses would be loving these changes: academies, villages and markets but no they are not happy, according to the TES, the Institute of Directors say that: “In the past, education was about imparting knowledge… today, it is about providing students with the intelligence and skills to navigate an increasingly uncertain and volatile employment market.” ‘Providing intelligence’ as an ‘off the shelf’ alternative to ignorance perhaps? “Buy your intelligence at Bohunt Chinese Academy!” “Shop away your stupidity at our learning village where we offer a dynamic fusion of exclusive skills that will attract employers and investors in your branded persona…”

The IoD go on to say that pupils should be: “imbued with curiosity, open-mindedness and the ability to make connections between seemingly unrelated bits of information…” and that: “with widespread internet access, the labour market no longer rewards workers primarily for what they know but for what they can do with what they know…” They, cheekily, add the idea that schools should not be ‘exam factories’. No, they should be Exam open-plan offices, all clean and computer based, glass fronted everything, and suits not overalls, wraps not sandwiches, prosecco and not beer. You see them all at Canary Wharf, the brave new workers all curious and open-minded… or not, as the case may be, but what lives do these people have when they go home from the glass covered office to their glass covered home in their glass encrusted village? This uncertain world that the Director’s worry about, this volatile employment market… as though these things are out of their control. This ‘real world’ where the business you’re working for wants you to spend all your school years being turned into a clone to satisfy their needs will drop you as quick as a flash if you’re no longer profitable. At least the old factories tried to give you a job for life… And Richard and George Cadbury built a village  for the workers to live in, ah patrician capitalists valued their workers… (sometimes… I remember the industrial strife… okay it wasn’t great but…) but our ‘volatile’ world should not be entirely shaped by the needs of capital, that is what makes it volatile.

Perhaps the Institute of Directors should do less pontificating, schools should not be about churning out workers, they should be about enriching their pupils’ lives. Humanity at heart – people before profits…

Perhaps these directors could start seeing their workers as human beings and start seeing education as something you can’t just conjure up on a screen or that ‘provides’ intelligence. Maybe, it’s more important than that, if they want to do good, they could use some of their acumen to invest philanthropically in their community schools, build theatres, science labs, provide sports fields in their dynamic fusion villages and in other older villages and towns.

Don’t throw away the ‘factory model’ of schools and replace them with the ‘office model’ of schools, instead educate for humanity’s sake, and children will grow to know, to think, connect and communicate beautifully, and instead of employing ‘workers’ employ human beings and shape businesses more to their human needs.

Drama Teaching, Socialisation and Indoctrination.


My whole view on the progressive vs traditional debate in education was formed during the late 80’s and early 90’s as a beginning teacher of drama. I would argue that more than any other subject drama was affected by this debate and that the ramifications still continue to this day.

Dewey’s ideas that children learn best by doing and that play and problem solving were vital for childhood development, best encapsulated through the arts, influenced a generation of educators. This found its way into drama education in the newly comprehensive schools not through the teaching of theatre or drama as an ‘Art-form’ with a capital A but as a movement that saw drama as a way of raising issues to engender empathy with the overall aim to feed revolutionary struggles and the ultimate overthrowing of the bourgeoisie. The West End Theatre and other ‘theatre’ was dismissed as hopelessly middle-class so a new form of drama had to be made. Distinct and different, It had to reject the ‘tradition’ of theatre, and also the idea of authority itself, most obviously in schools.

Of course this movement had to be shaped by a tradition and it found it in Brecht and other ‘alternative’ theatres – all proudly of the left. ‘Theatre in Education’ could on the one hand provide propaganda for revolutionary causes, in an ‘agitprop’ form and could also ‘involve’ the young audiences in empathising with the oppressed, or recognising their own oppression. Debate was more central to this movement than the quality of the art, and, it has to be said, the debate was heavily biased towards a certain political view.

This method inspired the notion of the ‘actor-teacher’ or ‘teacher-in-role’, where the educator divests themselves of the authority of the teacher and takes on, instead, various types of character to transmit the thinking that would frame the debate. Methods grew from this such as ‘role on the wall’, ‘hot-seating’, ‘still-image’, ‘thought-tracking’, techniques that had little to do with the ‘art of theatre’ but everything to do with enabling children to express their feelings and opinions within a restricted frame of reference. Children were expected to ‘think correctly’ about issues around status and power, they were ‘expected’ to take the side of the downtrodden and express misgivings or hatred of those who were the oppressor. This was simplified Brechtian theatre, where critical awareness was to be encouraged as long as the criticisms were directed towards the bourgeois class. These drama lessons were rehearsals for a new society and a vehement critique of the way things are and were. That drama teaching in many schools was offering an antithetical approach to society and to authority could be seen as problematic by those in power and, maybe, they were bourgeois and this drove them to see this ‘type’ of drama as being manipulative rather than emancipatory.

For many schools, especially the new comprehensives, this was drama, not the ‘bourgeois’  ‘speech and drama’ which was associated with that other, equally disquieting, form of social engineering: deportment and diction, where young soon to be ladies and gentlemen learned to hide their origins through an emphasis on stamping out dialects rather than engendering a form of dialectic.

The drama in education world began to split into various groupings in the eighties, the hardline political left in drama education continued to see it as a revolutionary form, the more liberal types saw it as a therapeutic, child-centred, revolution of the individual and the other, maybe, more bourgeois saw it as an art form encapsulated in the school play, often Shakespeare or Gilbert and Sullivan. Trying to keep all these different and competing ideologies together would be very difficult. As drama became an increasingly popular examined subject, exam boards tried to devise ways of encapsulating these different forms, often at odds with one another. Many boards enshrined the ‘still-image’ etc. as being part of the art of theatre and managed to ignore the rest of the history of the art form that, in the Western tradition, went back to, most notably, the Ancient Greeks.

Into this maelstrom came the 1989 book ‘Education and Dramatic Art’, in which David Hornbrook argued that because of its history educative drama was tied to progressive education and revolutionary politics and that this was denying pupils the knowledge of a great and historic ‘art-form’, his argument, though rooted on the left, perhaps echoing an argument more akin to that of Bourdieu and Gramsci, sent shockwaves through the drama education community. This was when I entered the world of drama teaching, Hornbook was roundly attacked by the revolutionaries and the child-centred progressives, what heady days! That he attacked Gavin Bolton and Dorothy Heathcote (famous for their works, such as: Drama for Learning: Dorothy Heathcote’s Mantle of the Expert (1995)) and the whole drama in education tradition was for a new teacher extremely invigorating and, I must say, I agreed with much of it.

Drama is first and foremost an art form, and that includes theatre, film and television. Drama in schools should mainly be about the art of theatre as an end in itself. Music is not often taught as a way into Marxist revolution and though all the arts can be individually and socially significant it should be through the study of the art forms themselves that these secondary effects are most keenly felt. As a teacher I was inspired by contemporary theatre makers like Theatre de Complicité, I brought these methods into my work, yes I loved Brecht but found him a far more interesting and ‘dialectical’ figure than the watered down version that he seemed through the drama in education tradition. The history of theatre is rich and varied; that drama in education got caught up in a political and social cul-de-sac, has made it something that, in some schools, has always been on the periphery of the curriculum. It has certainly been viewed suspiciously by those who wrote the various National Curricula, which, actually, was a Godsend for those of us given the opportunity to devise our own curriculum. That drama is not part of the Ebacc is a disgrace but of no surprise, though, in this, it is accompanied by all the arts subjects, social engineering is never pretty no matter who tries to do it.

Where drama as a subject is of most value is when it is seen as an art form that examines what it is to be human in all its variety, politically, socially, philosophically, physically, and poetically. Where drama as a subject is of least value is when it is seen as a social and political exercise in which the teacher has already made up his/her mind as to what the outcome should be for each child, whether through bourgeois or child-centred socialisation, or revolutionary political indoctrination.

Progressive Education, Shared Values, Play and Dirt…


Sir Ken Robinson’s award-winning work on creativity in education makes him a natural advocate for our movement. His belief that outdoor play and its benefits are “vital for education” and “vital for our families” resonates with our belief that playful children grow into great people. –

“Dirt is Good”

Pashi Sahlberg writes:

When I look around the world, I see competition, choice, and measuring of students and teachers as the main means to improve education.

This market-based global movement he calls ‘GERM’: the global education reform movement. Yet Sahlberg seems to overlook how the market is involving itself in subtle and not so subtle ways in education. When he says that:

Better education for all our children is not going to be a result of… managing education system (sic) like businesses. What we need now instead is to have schools where curiosity, engagement and talent can be truly discovered and nurtured… 

he doesn’t realise that business is already ahead of the curve, his ‘progressive’ agenda is theirs. It is not just education systems that are being managed like businesses, it is the art of education itself and it is the philosophy of ‘progress’ that is, arguably, the main driver for this. Ford Motor Company is imploring us to ‘Unlearn’. Lego want to ‘open our minds’ to “critical knowledge on play, creativity and learning.” Sky want us to believe in the ‘power of TV’. Persil prefers the narrative of ‘Dirt is Good’. As David Arkwright (founding partner of global brand-development agency MEAT and the former global brand director for Unilever’s laundry business, author of The Making of Dirt is Good.) puts it: “Great brands and brand stories play to a deep desire or resolve a deep tension.”

He continues:

We located this tension as the counterpointing of disciplinarian parenting versus the universal aspiration for a more libertarian parenting style in the spirit of transgenerational progress. Everyone seeks to feel they are somehow more progressive than the preceding generation. We had found our great point of resolution. The story would start to unfold.

It is no accident that Persil has brought in Sir Ken Robinson, to chair the brand’s Dirt is Good Child Development Advisory Board with Dr Stuart Brown, the founder of the National Institute of Play to “investigate methods of play that best help children learn and develop.” Here Sir Ken is telling the TES that: “I think it’s important that we look again at the importance of play-based learning – there’s a long history of research to show that play is not a waste of time, it is not time that is badly spent. Play, among human beings, has very important social benefits.”

The article reports that:

The report Play in Balance, commissioned by Persil, polled 12,000 parents worldwide. In the UK, 75 per cent of parents said their child preferred to play virtual sports games on a screen rather than real sports outside.

Over at the Sky Academy they: ‘believe in potential’, they want to use ‘the power of TV, creativity and sport, to build skills and experience to unlock potential in young people’.

Over at Microsoft they are launching an education edition of Minecraft According to Anthony Salcito, Microsoft’s vice-president of worldwide education: “Teachers are using Minecraft to do so many things, including teaching maths, science, religion and poetry…”

Might Salcito want our kids to stay inside whilst Robinson wants them outside? Lego want you to play with real bricks instead of virtual ones, Sky want you to watch TV… and Ford really want you to play with cars…

Ford want us to try “parking what we know and take a fresh look at familiar and finding new ways to make progress… open minds… because when we ‘unlearn’ we let go of what we know and that’s when we go further” you can see the ad, sorry, manifesto here. They say that: “This progressive thinking is reflected…” in their latest vehicle line up, meanwhile Fauja Singh runs through Greenwich Park ‘unlearning’ what it is to be an OAP.

As David Arkwright might put it a story is starting to unfold, it is the story of global brands tapping into the progressive education discourse and using it, emotionally, to firstly sell product and secondly to campaign for libertarian parenting and play based learning by letting go of what we know, opening our minds to creativity, playing outside and not on computers, or playing inside on computers or with bricks (though you could do this outside, it won’t involve kids getting dirty enough for Persil’s needs) or driving cars, when you leave school. And Ford isn’t boring any more.

I remember the Daz adverts with Danny Baker, we now have Ken Robinson metaphorically knocking on our doors and opening our minds to play Persil based whiter than white wash.

Maybe all this is an example of what is called ‘Shared Value‘, originally launched by the Clinton Global Initiative, they say: “Business is at its best when it helps people and profits, this is shared value, for example if a business provides medicine and health care education to rural areas without access it creates both healthy communities and a healthy customer base…”

Global companies helping our children, the healthy customer base for the future… This is progress.

In his book ‘More Human,’ David Cameron’s one time guru, Steve Hilton, writes that: “Media companies like News Corporation, Pearson, Disney, McGraw-Hill and Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt (some of which already own school textbook publishers) are pushing into education technology systems as a new sales and marketing strategy: a way to get as many eyeballs as possible on their products.” For Hilton this influx will be supporting the factory school model and the ‘depressing bureaucracy’. He cites a Pearson report ‘Preparing for a Renaissance in Assessment’ in which it says:

Without such a systematic, data-driven approach to instruction, teaching remains an imprecise and somewhat idiosyncratic process that is too dependent on the personal intuition and competence of individual teachers.

Hilton goes on to say that this is an approach which sees tests as the solution and teachers as the problem. His solution is to offer more choice in the school system, human scaled schools breaking the monopoly of local bureaucracies. His libertarian view is one I have a lot of sympathy for but I don’t think Governments will let go of testing regimes easily, in fact the data will provide a compelling narrative for competing ‘shared-value’ companies and systems. Whether it is the narrative of play based learning or, what Hilton and, interestingly, Ken Robinson call the ‘factory school’ it seems that global big businesses from Lego to Pearson from Persil to News Corp feel there is a worthwhile narrative in  education to sweep us all into the arms of their ‘products’.

Are all those on the left who extol the work of Ken Robinson happy with him cavorting with Unilever? Dirt is Good…

Peter Hitchens, writing in the Daily Mail, has begun to mourn (as a Conservative should) for the old days: “I do begin to feel I was fooled into thinking that what was coming next would be any better. At this rate it may soon be much, much worse…” and that he: “…fell for the great Thatcher-Reagan promise….I believed all that stuff about privatisation and free trade and the unrestrained market.”

How many articles will be written in the next thirty years bemoaning how we gave up our education system to the ‘shared-value’ market?

If we put all the above together what might the system look like? At one level it will be centralised and at another it will be choice driven. It will dispense with teachers because they are too idiosyncratic. It will become more standardised, computer play will be one way through as will play based learning at earlier ages. There will be online personalised routes, ones that will either look like minecraft or are textbook-lite; algorithms will point the child in the direction to go: where and when. There will be outside time when children will get dirty, and indoor time with bricks. They will be ‘unlearning’ and letting go of the past, whilst looking to ‘create’. There will be a plethora of online standardised tests run by Pearson et al which will allow data comparison across borders, and this will be realtime data, broken down into age, gender, geography, poverty etc. Some of this will be home learning through computers and/or in institutions policed by ‘teachers’. Films, TV shows and other products will be used to excite and deliver narrative to children as will games, robots and virtual reality.

One thing is clear, the institution that we currently know as ‘the school’ will, if all this comes to pass, be ‘progressive’ – the emotional tales of free children running, jumping, smiling, (at least in virtual reality) responding to progressive laissez faire parenting, whilst Government outsource centralised testing and learning modules to global companies. The unrestrained ‘shared-value’ market.

The ‘traditional’ model is quite tame in comparison. Institutionally based, with teachers at the centre, teaching children in their ‘idiosyncratic’ and flawed ways.

How old-fashioned, how unprogressive…


The Importance of Teaching ‘High Culture’


“As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” Gangsta’s Paradise: Coolio

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” Psalms 23:4 King James’ Version

The other day I was working with some teachers coming to the end of their training, the conversations were rich and rewarding and I have a good deal of faith that they will become great teachers. I was opening up debate by offering some provocations, including saying that it is important to not only teach ‘great’ work but also to help children develop a sense of what ‘great’ might be. Whilst emphasising the subjective nature to these judgements, I was arguing that children need to develop an ability to take part in the conversation and not feel excluded. One ITT suggested that this could occur from popular culture quoting the ‘Coolio’ lyric above. I pointed out that if someone did not know the biblical quote they might not recognise the reference. A biblical reference transcends class and race, and a child who has access to some words from, lets say, the King James Version of the Bible has a rich vein of material they can draw on throughout their life, whether they believe in the Christian God or not.

If I am educated in the works of High Culture my cup runneth over and I dwell in a world in which I can articulate thoughts I wouldn’t even have had if I didn’t know anything about it. I can enter into conversations with people I would have no business even being in the same room as them. I can change my life. I remember as a teenager being snubbed in an Oxford college because I was a mere ‘townie’, not for me the privileged discourse of the ‘gownie’; instead of obsessing about myself… my narrow obsessions… I could’ve thrown that mirror to the floor, and let my image, distorted, scream back at me: “Just learn about what you know, limit your life, and forever hide the inner you…”

If you only know popular culture and the most accessible aspects of it, then what do you know of the world? I’d warrant you’d know a lot but there would be a whole lot more you wouldn’t know. This is where school comes in, there is no point in teaching children what they already know, at school it is the inaccessible that should fascinate us, the downright difficult, the stuff we wouldn’t ordinarily come across or would find difficult to access. The stuff behind heavy oak doors, or in secret gardens. Yes, children might be scared of the things that schooling might put them through but this education can touch and enrich their ‘inner you’. High Culture is looking for recruits, children salute! If this education is only for the rich, or only for the geeks then what do we become? Weirdly bereft of a whole tranche of human knowing, we scatter ourselves around the basement, debased, not wholly aware of what or why we might be. We’re weird.

Weird people from the basement need to climb to the roof; You know the people on the bus and the people on the street people like you and the people like me! Weird people! Geeks! Whoever! People like you and me. A little mix of high culture with our lived lives enriches us, it expands us, it opens up possibilities. By denying high culture on the grounds of class, or any other, demeans the person denying that knowledge to others, because they ‘know’ of it but decide not to tell. In whose interests is it to not teach children the supreme works of humanity?

Then I hear the refrain: “But who is to say they are the supreme works?” And with that quip ‘high’ culture is dismissed; easily ignored and hated as elitist it becomes ever more elitist by denying it to our children. In the basement they can dream of climbing to the roof, but they know it’s not for the likes of them and the effort might be too much on their own. If only a great teacher would sing: “But it don’t matter who you are, you can be who you wanna be,” with an education that sees no reason not to teach great works a child can be comforted in the knowledge that can restoreth their soul.