Monthly Archives: February 2017

School 21, A ‘Conversation’ With Peter Hyman.


Late last year I had a long conversation with Peter Hyman in which we looked at areas of agreement in our education philosophies and areas where we disagree. This conversation took place within the walls of Windsor Castle, a most un-revolutionary backdrop, steeped in history, a place beautifully unencumbered by 21st Century thinking, unless you count the aeroplanes preparing to land at Heathrow that must disturb a good night’s sleep for various Royals, their servants and staff. Peter and I agree on many things but we also have some significant disagreements too.

In today’s Observer Peter has an article, It Is Time for a Real Revolution in Britain’s Schools, in which he sets out many of our agreements but also hints at those significant disagreements too. The article begins at an event which I attended in the House of Lords, a pupil gave a beautifully crafted speech, the need for eloquence is something about which Peter and I wholeheartedly agree. Peter was formally a speech writer for Tony Blair and shares with me a passion for the Art of Rhetoric, though, perhaps due to Blairite revisionism, he calls it ‘Oracy’. I contributed to the English Speaking Union and School 21’s book called ‘Speaking Frankly’ (Available for free: online edition, here) In the book I make my case, in a piece called ‘the Age of Rhetoric’, for argument, debate, logic and eloquence but also for the teaching of judiciously selected texts and a well thought through curriculum. It is on these points that Peter and I have real disagreements.

Although I agree wholeheartedly with Peter when he says:

An academic education (the head) starts with the basics of literacy and numeracy, then builds out to a deep love of words and facility with the English language. It then develops a depth of knowledge of key concepts and ways of thinking in areas such as science, maths, history and creative arts. This knowledge should be empowering knowledge – knowledge that draws on “the best that has been thought and said” from the past, as the cultural critic Matthew Arnold advocated, but importantly is shaped and applied to the needs of the present and future.

I’m not sure that he means the same thing as me when he writes this. To me this means emphasising subject based teaching, teaching knowledge explicitly so that children remember it and, importantly, it also involves the need for reflection, absorption and silence. Peter prefers a project-based approach to finding the ‘best that has been thought and said’, the problem I have with this is that it doesn’t tend to find the best. Let children free too early on the task of academic knowledge acquisition and they are more likely to find stuff that isn’t that good and also quickly pass over stuff which is difficult to understand. This stuff needs to be taught in a systematic way, it needs to unfold in a carefully constructed narrative, so that children learn in real depth. For this to occur, it needs to be chosen by teachers, presented in a specific order, and referred back to often. It should not be left up to the child to construct, not if you want them to truly learn.

I also worry about Peter’s idea of a ‘noisy’ classroom. If he means a classroom in which children talk and are questioned as well as questioning, where the ‘noise’ is purposeful, then great. If this is just a rhetorical flourish to get a reaction, that this is not the default position, and that if he saw children working silently and diligently on their own in a classroom he wouldn’t worry about it, then fine,  because sometimes we really do need to work alone and quietly, if we want to reach insight and understanding.

As a drama teacher, I love group work, yet I can also see its many problems and weaknesses. It is not a great way to learn stuff. Certainly not for every child in a group. It also suffers as an approach because a teacher can’t keep track of the ‘learning’ that is going on in a group and often quite fundamental concepts are distorted through a ‘Chinese whisper’ approach in which a nugget of knowledge is reshaped into a prize piece of nonsense.

However, we do agree that there should be debate, dialogue and conversation, these things have an important role to play. I worry that Peter has a slightly Utopian idea that his approach will make the world a better place, I’m not sure that we ought to try to make children more ethical and liberal, but we should certainly offer up the great issues of our time as well as the past so that they might be more informed but free to make their own decisions and, yes, mistakes as well as successes.

The great liberal arts tradition is, of course, an education that provides children with the means to learn valuable knowledge, to value discussion and thought, and appreciate the need for beauty and eloquence in their communications with the outside world.

It is great that we have a system in which a school like ‘Michaela’ and a school like Peter’s ‘School 21’ can coexist. I wonder if there is room for a school that seeks to put both approaches together and whether that would satisfy Peter’s desire for innovation?

Assessment and the Arts


The anti-Ken Robinson Robinson talks about cognitive dualism, the need for the subjective and the problems that creates for schools in a high stakes assessment and accountability system.

If the arts are subjective how can they be measured fairly? If they are assessed more objectively can they be considered to be worthwhile subjects of study?


George Monbiot on Factory Schools and the Future of Education


On his website George Monbiot writes that:

While you can be definitively wrong, you cannot be definitely right. The best anyone can do is constantly to review the evidence and to keep improving and updating their knowledge. Journalism which attempts this is worth reading. Journalism which does not is a waste of time.

Just as importantly, journalists should show how they reach their conclusions, by providing sources for the facts they cite. Trust no one, but trust least those who cannot provide references. A charlatan, in any field, is someone who will not show you his records.

This is good to know, in the light of an article he wrote called:

In an age of robots, schools are teaching our children to be redundant

As a trainee Luddite I was quite hopeful when I saw this title, maybe it would be an attack on the mechanisation of our schools from the enthusiastic techno-warriors who try to ruin the environment of education by throwing technology at every child as soon as they have learnt to gurgle and cry. But no.

The piece opens with this paragraph:

In the future, if you want a job, you must be as unlike a machine as possible: creative, critical and socially skilled. So why are children being taught to behave like machines?

As Monbiot suggests, he cannot be definitely right when he writes this. Yet has he reviewed the evidence? Has he updated his knowledge? Has he provided evidence for the facts he has cited? Has he shown us his records?

Well, maybe he has a crystal ball, but I’m not sure he knows what the jobs of the future will be like. Although I’m surprised that he implies education is primarily for preparing children for jobs I wonder what jobs he is thinking of, I’d like to see his evidence for this assertion. Finally, evidence wise, which schools are teaching children to behave like machines? I only ask because Monbiot suggests I should:

Trust no one, but trust least those who cannot provide references…

Monbiot writes that:

…why is collaboration in tests and exams called cheating?

He doesn’t provide sources for the facts he is citing here, but as a drama teacher I can assure him that at A level and GCSE collaboration is not called cheating…

but, of course, it might be him referring to written exams only… but this misunderstands group work, sometimes children try to hide they can’t read or can’t do a task, assessment is important for the teacher to find out who can’t do something so that they might help the pupil. If every test was collaborative, would the education for the future that Monbiot has already described achieve his aim? But, oddly, Monbiot believes the schools we currently have are:

…designed to produce the workforce required by 19th-century factories. The desired product was workers who would sit silently at their benches all day, behaving identically, to produce identical products, submitting to punishment if they failed to achieve the requisite standards. Collaboration and critical thinking were just what the factory owners wished to discourage.

Yet if we do a bit of research we can see that in the 19th century, the schools which were designed to:

provide for England’s newly-industrialised and (partly) enfranchised society 

Were not ones in which

workers who would sit silently at their benches all day


In ‘Schools of Industry’ (As factory school as you can get):

The children were taught reading and writing, geography and religion. Thirty of the older girls were employed in knitting, sewing, spinning and housework, and 36 younger girls were employed in knitting only. The older boys were taught shoemaking, and the younger boys prepared machinery for carding wool. The older girls assisted in preparing breakfast, which was provided in the school at a small weekly charge. They were also taught laundry work. The staff consisted of one schoolmaster, two teachers of spinning and knitting, and one teacher for shoemaking. (Hadow 1926:3-4) In 1846 the Committee of Council on Education began making grants to day schools of industry towards the provision of gardens, trade workshops, kitchens and wash-houses, and for gratuities to the masters who taught boys gardening and crafts and to the mistresses who gave ‘satisfactory instruction in domestic economy’ (Hadow 1926:9).

Sounds like collaboration was needed, and not too much sitting in rows.

This is similar to Monitorial Schools:

The curriculum… was… the ‘three Rs’ (reading, writing and ‘rithmetic) plus practical activities such as cobbling, tailoring, gardening, simple agricultural operations for boys, and spinning, sewing, knitting, lace-making and baking for girls.

Whereas in Infant Schools:

The first infant school was established by Robert Owen (1771-1858) in New Lanark, Scotland, in 1816. Children were admitted at the age of two and cared for while their parents were at work in the local cotton mills. The instruction of children under six was to consist of ‘whatever might be supposed useful that they could understand, and much attention was devoted to singing, dancing, and playing’ (Hadow 1931:3).

Elementary Schools:

The question of how to organise children above the age of six in elementary schools was first addressed in Great Britain by David Stow (1793-1864)… He believed that in primary education the living voice was more important than the printed page, so he laid great stress on oral class teaching.

All this information is freely available here. It gives a lie to Monbiot’s assertion about what the 19th century education was like.

Monbiot’s assertion also ignores the social pioneers who pressed for reform throughout the 19th century, resulting in more schools educating the poor, educating girls, and also providing education education for ‘special needs’ children.

As for other schools, for the more ‘well-to-do’ the 1868 Taunton Report recommended, along class lines that schools should be seen as three different types:

first-grade schools with a leaving age of 18 or 19 would provide a ‘liberal education’ – including Latin and Greek – to prepare upper and upper-middle class boys for the universities and the older professions;
second-grade schools with a leaving age of 16 or 17 would teach two modern languages besides Latin to prepare middle class boys for the army, the newer professions and departments of the Civil Service; and
third-grade schools with a leaving age of 14 or 15 would teach the elements of French and Latin to lower middle class boys, who would be expected to become ‘small tenant farmers, small tradesmen, and superior artisans’. (The Commissioners treated these schools as secondary schools because the Elementary School Code of 1860 had fixed the leaving age for elementary schools at 12).

The Elementary Schools act of 1870 which took up to 20 years to enact is one where schools:

catered for children up to 14;
were for the working class;
provided a restricted curriculum with the emphasis almost exclusively on the ‘3Rs’ (reading, writing and ‘rithmetic);
pursued other, less clearly defined, aims including social-disciplinary objectives (acceptance of the teacher’s authority, the need for punctuality, obedience, conformity etc);
operated the ‘monitorial’ system, whereby a teacher supervised a large class with assistance from a team of monitors (usually older pupils). 

Perhaps these are the schools Monbiot meant? Some of which were only around for the last decade of the 19th century. These schools were not preparing children for the 19th century factory but, maybe, the 20th century one. Yet they were also doing something socially extraordinary, if we look back to 19th century Sunday Schools in which no child was taught:

writing or arithmetic or any of the ‘more dangerous subjects’

because they were:

‘less necessary or even harmful’

The fact that poorer children were being taught to read and write and do their sums was a great advance. Yet even then, at the end of the century, further social reformers were looking to improve the academic level of education for the poor, which led to many great schooling innovations in the twentieth century.

I have a great deal of sympathy with many of Monbiot’s sentiments, but his inability to provide much evidence at all for his assertions in the first half of his piece then leads to worries about the singular nature of the evidence he provides in the second half of his article.

In fact the whole piece reads as though instead of

constantly reviewing the evidence and keep improving and updating his knowledge

it looks as though he already had a conclusion in mind and went on social media to provide ammunition for his prejudices.

Surely he wouldn’t have done something like that?

And yet on the 8th February Monbiot had tweeted this:

Screen Shot 2017-02-15 at 21.20.27.png

Next time, wouldn’t it be interesting if Monbiot followed his own advice and tried to produce (I paraphrase):

Journalism that is worth reading.


NB The image above is from the USA somewhere between 1900 and 1920

Katie Hopkins, Denial, and Teaching ‘Critical Thinking’


AQA state that:

A-level Government and Politics enables students to develop their critical thinking skills and enhance their ability to interpret, evaluate and comment on the nature of politics.

For a teacher this is quite a challenge, especially in ‘politically charged’ days like these. Days in which the ‘politically impartial’ speaker of the House of Commons has found himself in hot water for expressing a preference as to whether Donald Trump should address the Houses of Parliament and stating that he voted for ‘remain’ in the EU referendum. A teacher of politics thinking about developing the political critical thinking skills of her students needs to ensure this critical thinking is sensitive to the values and beliefs of different political traditions. This is hard enough when the values and policies of the two seem to have much in common, it is a much harder task when they don’t.

According to Olga Khazan:

liberals and conservatives… now seem further apart than ever on their policy preferences

And, despite many MPs in the Labour Party marching through the same ‘Brexit’ lobby as the Conservative government’s MPs ,the same seems to be at play in the UK.

This distance between the two sides can easily venture into classrooms. A caller to a radio station last Sunday stated that her 17 year old son:

was forced to drop his Government and Politics [A level] after he was “alienated” by fellow pupils for voicing support for Trump during an in-class debate. The concerned mother also said that he was told by the teacher “he shouldn’t have such strong opinions”.

If a teacher and the majority view of the pupils in a class is such that Trump is beyond the pale it might be very difficult for someone with differing views to state their case. That his classmates reportedly shunned him in the next lesson and that this was seemingly supported by the teacher makes it even more worrying. If you can’t have strong opinions in a Government and Politics class, where can you? Maybe the teacher and the classmates need to think about the importance of denial.

The caller was phoning in to the Katie Hopkin’s show on LBC is of note, at the end of the call Hopkins suggested she ‘might go into teaching’, something that might send many teachers into paroxysms of anger. Apparently this sort of response would be quite typical for people of a liberal disposition, our response, whether conservative, liberal or libertarian or a. n. other, to people with whom we disagree tends to be one of complete disbelief, after all our values are the correct ones.

Khazan cites a report by Matt Feinberg, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto and his co-author, Stanford University sociologist Robb Willer, who have studied the difficulty in how to persuade people to your way of thinking. She writes:

One reason this is so hard to do, they explain, is that people tend to present their arguments in a way that appeals to the ethical code of their own side, rather than that of their opponents.

Feinberg states:

“We tend to view our moral values as universal… there are no other values but ours, and people who don’t share our values are simply immoral. Yet, in order to use moral reframing you need to recognize that the other side has different values, know what those values are, understand them well enough to be able to understand the moral perspective of the other side, and be willing to use those values as part of a political argument.”

For someone updating their status on social media this means they usually send out messages that take their own ethical code as being the one that everyone shares, and if someone doesn’t share it then there must be something wrong with them.

If you think Trump, his team and his supporters are a ‘bunch of deplorables’ it might not be the most persuasive language to use if you want to persuade his voters to change their minds. Brexit is another obvious issue with which it is easy to come unstuck and find yourself treating those ‘on the other side’ as if they are completely deluded. The more passionate one feels about an issue the less carefully one might choose one’s language.

For a teacher, in a classroom, if you want to connect with those who do not necessarily share your views it might be worth looking at how you communicate as well as what values you are promoting.

A classroom is a place where emotions matter but it is also a place where the use of reason and reasoning can be taught. As David Hare puts it in his foreword to Denial by Deborah E Lipststadt

“In an internet age it is, at first glance, democratic to say that everyone is entitled to their opinion. That is surely true. It is however a fatal step to then claim that all opinions are equal. Some opinions are backed by fact. Others are not. And those which are not backed by fact are worth considerably less than those which are. “

The classroom should not encourage children just to shout off their opinions but be places where opinions are developed through careful thought and analysis of facts and ideas. This would involve the teacher understanding different viewpoints and presenting material, where useful, dialectically. As this article puts it:

Surely [pupils] deserve the opportunity to learn how to think, before a teacher tries to tell them what to think as well.

This seemingly liberal view against teachers indoctrinating kids might seem reasonable enough, until you realise it’s from the Daily Mail and written by the aforementioned Katie Hopkins. Hopkins is a right wing controversialist and the Mail is a newspaper even shunned as a reliable source by Wikipedia, so when I tweeted the article I should have expected a reaction. Most teachers even those agreeing with the sentiment could not see past the Hopkins/Mail concatenation. Not all opinions are equal but for some this is due to who utters them and where, rather than what the opinion might be.

The film of ‘Denial’ shows this brilliantly, as much as someone might hate the words of David Irving because of who he is, in the court of law it came clear that the battle over what is said is more important than the battle around their character. If we are teaching about such things it would be important to show how the teacher should not say ‘Irving is evil’, no matter what their personal viewpoint might be. They might speculate as to his motives, but the most important part of the lessons should be about the facts of the case as presented. A great lesson in how to think forensically rather than purely emotionally, the film shows how difficult this can be and also how all involved are emotional beings and that this is an important part of what makes us all too human it might sometimes get in the way of ‘truth’.

If not all opinions are equal this cannot be based on what we ‘feel’ about those facts but on how we examine, analyse and use persuasive argument to see which opinions count for more. These opinions will sometimes, perhaps often, not reflect our own. We have to ‘deny’ our own feelings. This denial can be very important.

In a Government and Politics class, it shouldn’t be the initial opinions of the teacher, or the children, that matter. It should, however, be about discovering about where ideas come from. We might ‘feel’ our moral sentiments are universal (some of them might be) but we need to look at how other people might differ. Rhetoric can be carefully constructed to persuade those who disagree with us to think about what we might have to say with sympathy. The course could also look at the darker arts of politics: The Prince or, even, House of Cards, but most of all it should look at how to have educated opinions, how to muster arguments, empathise with your opponents, yet be able to argue with them respectfully, eloquently and thoughtfully and perhaps, even, sometimes change their minds. Articulating opinions sometimes needs the act of denial in order to make them stronger.