Category Archives: Great Books

Knowledge Belongs to the Many, Not the Few

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Angela Rayner’s speech to the Labour Party conference contained many interesting ideas. The National Education Service, of course, echoes the UK’s beloved NHS:

The next Labour Government will create a National Education Service, a cradle-to-grave system supporting everyone throughout their lives. It would start in the early years, where we know it has the most impact in changing people’s lives – just like my life was changed by a Labour Government.

And Rayner’s backstory is an important one, secondary modern, left school at sixteen, is as much a part of our school experience as left school at 18 with three A levels to go to Russell Group Uni.

The idea of education starting through Sure Start centres – maybe helping children to read and write and do number early on is a pertinent one.

To never give up on children, on people, is also important, again Rayner refers to her own experiences:

Workplace education meant we had the chance to learn more and earn more. Other people need that chance. So, our National Education Service will be lifelong, providing for people at every stage of their life.

This idea of lifelong learning is a vital one. I think every business and industry should either provide training or give employees the time and the wherewithal to study. Rayner wishes to start the conversation about what a National Education Service would be like:

I look forward to that conversation, to visiting schools, colleges, and universities, to talking to pupils, parents, teachers, and businesses, so we can truly build a National Education Service for the many, and not just the few.

This brought her to the strongest part of her speech:

The Labour Party was founded to ensure that the workers earned the full fruit of their labour.  Well, the sum of human knowledge is the fruit of thousands of years of human labour. The discoveries of maths and science; the great works of literature and art; the arc of human and natural history itself; and so much more that there is to learn. All of it should be our common inheritance. Because knowledge belongs to the many, not the few.

This is our historic purpose as a movement. Not just to be a voice for the voiceless.

But to give them a voice of their own. That is the challenge we face. And it is what we will do, together.

This is exactly what education is for. I heard no-one shout Rayner down with calls of: ‘Whose knowledge? Whose inheritance?’ In these concluding remarks she embodied all that is best in the great liberal arts tradition, the great works, knowledge for the many and giving them a voice of their own.

And yet later that same day in Tom Watson’s speech we heard a call for a very different kind of education:

In an age when every child has access to all the knowledge that has ever existed on a device that fits in the palm of their hand, just teaching them to memorise thousands of facts is missing the point. Michael Gove’s curriculum reforms were a useless return to the past – obsessed by what children can remember, instead of how they use the knowledge they have.

The confusion here seems to be about memory and ‘having’ knowledge. Having a device in one’s pocket doesn’t mean ‘having’ that knowledge, just as sleeping with a dictionary under your pillow doesn’t mean you’ll become highly articulate overnight. A child, indeed an adult, does have to learn something and this means committing learning to memory – Gove notwithstanding.

We don’t yet know what the jobs of the future will be, so we’ve got to teach children not just what to learn but how to learn. And how to be. Self-awareness, emotional intelligence, social skills, creativity and collaborative learning. Transferable skills they can adapt as the new world swirls around them.

In this part of his speech Watson reminds us of the problematic 2007 National Curriculum, where skills and the unlikely nature of their easy transferability is to be suddenly absorbed by children who will, no doubt, ‘have’ these skills in a downloadable form from their phones.

Watson wants our kids to be educated for the unknown:

economy of the future.

Where… Angela Rayner… will lead an education system that prepares our young people for a world we can’t yet see.

A utopian hope built through utilitarian means.

The next Labour Government will educate and train a nation of workers that are the most creative and adaptive on the planet. We’ll give working people the tools to use technology to enhance their lives, rather than restricting them to a digital elite.

The digital economy succeeds only when it gives each of us the means to realise our true potential. Which doesn’t stop in our schools. It must be threaded throughout our economy, throughout our lives.

This is not education, it is training. It is an apprenticeship in becoming working fodder for the needs of business. But business should be providing this. Training for jobs that do or don’t exist should be provided by companies throughout a person’s life, training and retraining them. Yes Government can help with this – it might be a National Training Service – but it’s not a national education service.

Education is about the quality of a human life, it examines what it is to be human in this world. It teaches knowledge that should belong to the many and not the few, this is truly a great hope but if Labour are to return to Government I worry that instead of teaching the great books and thoughts they will, instead, insist on a second rate diet of scientism in which:

Self-awareness, emotional intelligence, social skills, creativity and collaborative learning

take the place of

the sum of human knowledge [from] the fruit of thousands of years of human labour

Please don’t let this be so.

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The Need for a Progressive Attitude

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In her thoughtful essay ‘The Crisis in Education’, Hannah Arendt addresses the difficulty of teaching in the modern world. If you go into teaching with the sole purpose of making a real difference, changing the world one child at a time, you might end up doing nothing of the sort.

A revolutionary or radical attitude is needed in the adult realm because we always need to remake our world. The world is always on the verge of ruin and a traditionalist conservative view where one stands and merely ‘admires the ruins’ will do nothing to make the world a great inheritance for our children.

We should try to make the world a better place than it is. Always. This doesn’t mean an unalloyed progressive mindset is a good thing. It does mean that our arguments are continual, our disagreements fundamental and our need to work together essential. Education has an important role in this, we need to prepare children to take part in the conversations, the arguments and help them develop the wherewithal to do, to contribute and to make change.

In order to do this one can imagine the unthinking classroom being full of novelty, in which the ruins are not examined and the future is always in sight. A classroom that shapes the new utopia and children practice the skills with which they will actively make their contribution. A room where their will is the authority and in which the teacher has the role of guiding them, responding to their playful desires and wishes. This world, shaped by the teacher’s idealism, and the burgeoning youthful enthusiasm will not be tainted by the old.

Here then is the paradox, this world that comes into being will not be radical, as it will have no root. Shaped by a tyranny of the present, it won’t understand the ruins it knocks down to build its gleaming new pathways and concrete blocks – or even the blocks it is cladding. Arendt sees the role of the teacher as a difficult one for an idealist, for the teacher’s job is to bring the past into the realm of the young:

To avoid misunderstanding: it seems to me that conservatism, in the sense of conservation, is of the essence of the educational activity… But this holds good only for the realm of education, or rather for the relations between grown-ups and children, and not for the realm of politics, where we act among and with adults and equals. In politics this conservative attitude–which accepts the world as it is, striving only to preserve the status quo–can only lead to destruction, because the world, in gross and in detail, is irrevocably delivered up to the ruin of time unless human beings are determined to intervene, to alter, to create what is new…

Basically we are always educating for a world that is or is becoming out of joint, for this is the basic human situation… Because the world is made by mortals it wears out… The problem is simply to educate in such a way that a setting–right remains actually possible, even though it can, of course, never be assured. Our hope always hangs on the new which every generation brings; but precisely because we can base our hope only on this, we destroy everything if we so try to control the new that we, the old, can dictate how it will look. Exactly for the sake of what is new and revolutionary in every child, education must be conservative; it must preserve this newness and introduce it as a new thing into an old world, which, however revolutionary its actions may be, is always, from the standpoint of the next generation, superannuated and close to destruction…

the modern crisis is especially hard for the educator to bear, because it is his task to mediate between the old and the new, so that his very profession requires of him an extraordinary respect for the past. 

If, however the teacher is determined to make the child make the future in a certain way by dictating the terms of the newness of the world that they make we defeat our darker purpose. The child cannot be told how to draw the new world, they can however be painted pictures of the old one, and these pictures must be painted with warts and all. Cromwell is a great example, hugely important figure, hugely flawed and the English Civil War and its ramifications painted in as many shades of grey one can muster.

As the past isn’t one story but a continuation of one damn argument after another, children should be made aware of these arguments, that we admire ruins but the reason that they are ruins might be this… or this… we conserve in order to learn. We treat the pupil as a stranger to these facts and fictions we teach and by presenting arguments, dialectic, we give them the old world to ensure they will be able to intervene, alter and create the new.

The balance between presenting the old and the arguments within is a careful act. This includes, for example, what should be read and how it should be read. These questions are vital when considering the design of a curriculum and if we listen to the words of Arendt we are helped in our choices.

The trivium curriculum gives shape to these choices – the grammar – ‘the structures, the ‘ruins’ of the past, are examined in context, and, later, examined when the arguments of the past and the present are brought to bear, and, finally, the pupil, with this knowledge, is given the wherewithal, the ‘voice’ with which to express herself. She expresses herself freely within the constraints offered, by accepting or rejecting these chains (or degrees thereof) and offers herself up to the criticism of her teacher and, eventually, her peers. This is a truly progressive approach, rooted in the past.

The Dangers of a Personalised Curriculum

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Trying to fit a personalised curriculum around the desires of a child is a dangerous idea. If we only ever follow the extreme individualisation where the child’s own innate tastes are paramount we might never move out of McDonalds.

The argument for personalisation goes hand in hand with the idea that much that is studied is of equal value. As long as they’re reading something it doesn’t matter what it is. Why not let a child pursue their own interests? Well, because sometimes those interests might not be in their own best interests. Great Art teaches us truths, just as much as science can. Just not the same ‘type’ of truth.

In a conversation with a science teacher about ‘why we teach Shakespeare’ I suggested it’s because his message is universal, a great expression of the human condition, and exactly the sort of thing that a great education should be focused upon. Absorb a child in the words of Shakespeare and she has a companion for life.

‘It’s all subjective,’ was the reply…

And I tried to reply: yes we are talking about the ‘subjective’ but some things are better than other things and, as teachers, we need to teach children how to make the right choices – how to discern quality in all the arts, how to develop taste, how to open one’s heart to beauty and how to get involved in the conversation. It is important that the teacher opens the world of the subjective so that it becomes a place in which a child can traverse confidently.

For Kierkegaard it was the subjective truth that mattered. For him:

The subjective thinker is not a man of science, but an artist. Existing is an art. The subjective thinker is aesthetic enough to give his life aesthetic content, ethical enough to regulate it, and dialectical enough to penetrate it with thought.

It is the passionate embrace with this ‘subjective’ truth, which is a constant striving towards something, knowing it has depth, knowing it has infinite engagement and argument at its core which works like Shakespeare continue to have for us that make them great.

‘I’m a relativist.’ Said the science teacher. ‘There are objective truths which is the realm of science and everything else is relative.’

For Kierkegaard objective truth suffers for once known it no longer needs us to engage with it deeply. For some this is why they miss Shakespeare’s importance, because they switch off when they are told he is ‘good’.

But the scientist who is striving, wanting to know more, engaged in a struggle to find out is on a similar trajectory to those trying to find the truth in the subjective realm. This, not quite known, quest – keeps us involved. This is the realm in which science and art can come together.

Shakespeare is great, but how great? Shakespeare tells us truths but how true?

The need to teach a pupil about quality is a central tenet when creating a curriculum for them. The alternative to quality driving our decisions, perhaps pandering to what we think they might like, is relativism – where everything has equal value, no truth, this just opens us up to a vile petulant cynicism. And instead of the engagement with great art we have personalisation of the worst sort. Whatever you think is good, is good. Not about truth, just individual gratification. The ‘well, it’s my opinion’ argument gets us into dangerous areas. The  inability to grasp the importance of subjective truths changes the centre of gravity from a relationship with great works into a full focus on one’s own self:

From the fact that all ideologies are of equal value, that all ideologies are mere fictions, the modern relativist infers that everybody has the right to create for himself his own ideology and to attempt to enforce it with all the energy of which he is capable

Mussolini (talking about his ‘relativism by intuition’)

History of Thought

In these days of very little time or space on a timetable it is still heartening to know that some schools are trying to make a space where children can be taught in a way that celebrates education for its own sake. Paradoxically this approach might have benefits beyond education, as Stefan Collini puts it: “with ever narrowing specialism there is a need for generalists to synthesise information, to make connections between the discipline silos.”

This course is an introduction to cultural capital, literacy, or whatever you like to call it in your context, where children can learn, discuss and make connections across the curriculum. It is with this aim in mind that I have been working on ‘History of Thought’, a course that enriches and stretches even the keenest of minds.

Please see below for details:

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The History of Thought (Ideas)

Purpose:

To connect ideas and thoughts across disciplines. (Inter-disciplinary)
To stretch and challenge pupils and widen their horizons.
To give pupils an in depth appreciation and knowledge of the ‘Great Western Tradition’ through a ‘Grand Tour’ of ideas and historical epochs.
To develop independent learning.
To develop pupils skills in writing and verbal communication.
To develop confidence and ability for university entrance procedures.
To enable pupils to develop their own interests and character, education for ‘freedom’.
To use the trivium as a teaching methodology.
To train staff and to encourage collaboration across departments.
To enable staff to think strategically about curriculum design and delivery.

History of ideas is intended to run alongside other disciplines. It could take the place of Religious Studies and PSHE or it could be given curriculum time of its own. The course takes a ‘liberal arts’ approach, in that it aims to ‘free’ the pupil to think for themselves and be able to make thoughtful criticisms, follow their developing ‘unique’ modes of thought, and become confident academically and be able to develop the art of conversation.

“liberal learning… above all else, is an education in imagination, an initiation into the art of this conversation…”

Michael Oakeshott

Content:

A series of historical epochs, such as: ‘Classical’, ‘Medieval’, ‘Renaissance’, ‘Enlightenment’, ‘Romantic’, ‘Modern’, ‘Contemporary’. The study could be frame by ‘what was distinct about the —— period’? or ‘what might we mean by the — – mind’?
Each of these could include a look at: science, art, architecture, geography, philosophy, literature, language, politics, ’events’ etc. in the UK, Europe, the ‘West’ and the world.
Other strands could be incorporated: ‘civilisation’, ‘trade’, ‘moral truths’, (or indeed ‘truth’ itself), ‘people’ – themes such as the growth of the individual, the nation state, ‘empire’, ‘democracy’, race, class, gender, sexuality etc.
Introducing Great Books/Objects (And discussing What is great? Why? Is this great? What is excluded/included, why might this be? Challenges to the canon) Context and Argument)

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Trivium:
The teaching of the course is designed to fit with the ‘trivium’: Pupils are introduced to the ‘knowledge’ of the era, they look at the main arguments, explore things in their context and also, maybe, with a contemporary eye (as long as that distortion is made clear). They are then invited to debate, write, argue and question one another, with the teacher ensuring that ‘the facts’ are always at the root of the discussions rather than ‘mere opinion’. Speeches, projects, essays and also products in a range of different media can then be produced – either for each epoch and/or at the end of the whole course.

EPQ:
The course can fit alongside the EPQ and be a good way of introducing it.
In Harvard all students follow a ‘programme in general education’ which, they argue: ‘…seeks to connect in an explicit way what students learn in Harvard classrooms to life outside the ivied walls and beyond the college years. The material taught in general education courses is continuous with the material taught in the rest of the curriculum, but the approach is different. These courses aim not to draw students into a discipline, but to bring the disciplines into students’ lives. The Program in General Education introduces students to subject matter and skills from across the University, and does so in ways that link the arts and sciences with the 21st century world that students will face and the lives they will lead after college.’

NB: The ‘History of Thought’ is intended as an academic core, not a second rate addendum. It is meant to be ‘highbrow’ and to furnish pupils with a good amount of cultural capital as well as give them a context to all their studies in the wider curriculum.

“Reading makes a full man, conversation a ready man, and writing an exact man.”

Francis Bacon

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Read about and listen to ‘Does the World Need Polymaths?’ here.

If you’re interested in seeing whether this course can be tailor made to fit in with your needs: please do get in touch here.

You Can’t Teach the Best That Has Been Thought and Said

Here are the slides in PDF format from my talk at the Telegraph Festival of Education at Wellington College on 22nd June 2017:

You Can’t Teach The Best That Has Been Thought and Said

Academic Education For All

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German players seemed to have more to draw on as people than English counterparts; greater all round resources that helped them navigate tournaments and pressure points 

Jonathan Northcroft: interview with Frank Lampard, Sunday Times, May 28th 2017

In our great debates about education: vocational vs grammar, 21st Century skills for the jobs that don’t yet exist vs academic education, something always seems to be missed and that is an academic education is good for all.

As Frank Lampard explains in the interview:

You’ll benefit if you bring through players who are intelligent. The best players in the world are smart and clever on the pitch and you can’t tell me that’s not a well rounded thing.

Lampard, educated at Brentwood Independent school, feels he was fortunate to have had  a good education:

…not just maths and science, but life education – and these are big things that relate on the pitch. You see it how certain players hold themselves…

He sees it as a responsibility for all football clubs to cover – educate the youngsters especially those you pull out of school at 15/16… For those that don’t make it need a good education to fall back on and those that do make it need it to fall back on too. Part of Lampard’s history is his time at West Ham Football Club.

The academy of football set up by Ted Fenton at West Ham as the ‘Cafe Cassettari’ club, where social aspects such as welcoming and providing warm food, were expanded by Malcolm Allison:

…players would exchange views on the game and make tactical plans around the dinner table, illustrating their ideas with the use of salt and pepper pots. The culmination of those years of hard work, on and off the field, was the Second Division championship in 1958 – the springboard to great cup successes at a much higher level in the mid-60s … no one should underestimate the positive influence of Malcolm Allison’s earlier role in Hammers’ history 

West Ham Club History: John Hellier

This idea should be taken further. We should realise the benefit of players and trainees knowing about Shakespeare, Goethe, Germaine Greer, Beethoven, CLR James, Brendan Behan, Gaugin, Virginia Woolf, Boadicea, Euclid, Euripides, St Augustine and Confucius; the poetry of life gives backbone to the poetry on the pitch.

Whether you are an academy of football or an ‘ordinary’ academy or school, an academic education should be for all. We are all children of a sacred olive grove (Hekademia (Ἑκαδήμεια)) dedicated to the Athena, goddess of wisdom, that gave rise to our word academia and to Plato’s famous academy.

And our children should benefit from a life dedicated to Athena too.

Whether they are to be footballers or scientists, leaders or followers, down on their luck or lucky, an academic education will enrich all their lives.

 

The Problems With Traditional Education.

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Traditional education is problematic. If it was perfect then there would be no cogent arguments against it. As Dewey made clear, what he termed as progressive education was a reaction due to “discontent with traditional education.”  This discontent is based on important ideas. Dewey described traditional education being, “…in essence, one of imposition from above and from outside.” Even though: “…good teachers will use devices of art to cover up the imposition so as to relieve it of obviously brutal features.”

Crucially:

the very situation [of traditional education] forbids much active participation by pupils in the development of what is taught. Theirs is to do—and learn… Learning here means acquisition of what already is incorporated in books and in the heads of the elders. Moreover, that which is taught… is taught as a finished product, with little regard either to the ways in which it was originally built up or to changes that will surely occur in the future. It is to a large extent the cultural product of societies that assumed the future would be much like the past, and yet it is used as educational food in a society where change is the rule, not the exception.

Instead he posits a progressive education that, instead of imposing an education from above, develops

expression and cultivation of individuality;

He sets up his progressive education in opposition to traditional modes:

to external discipline is opposed free activity; to learning from texts and teachers, learning through experience; to acquisition of isolated skills and techniques by drill, is opposed acquisition of them as means of attaining ends which make direct vital appeal; to preparation for a more or less remote future is opposed making the most of the opportunities of present life; to static aims and materials is opposed acquaintance with a changing world.

Experiential, ‘free’ learning, in the here and now, with texts and teachers taking on a different role, to support the pupil in what is vitally appealing through an acquaintance with our current world and how it is changing.

This is all very exciting. Traditional teaching and texts are set up in opposition to our current, changing times.

Freire considered Dewey to be a key philosopher of education and they have ideas in common but Freire goes further than Dewey. Instead of a ‘democratic’ education Freire’s vision is revolutionary. He saw traditional education as brutal, he used the term ‘ideology of oppression’ to clarify the relationship between the traditional teacher and the pupil:

Narration (with the teacher as narrator) leads the students to memorize mechanically the narrated account. Worse yet, it turns them into “containers,” into “receptacles” to be “filled” by the teachers. The more completely she fills the receptacles, the better a teacher she is. The more meekly the receptacles permit themselves to be filled, the better students they are.

Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the “banking’ concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits… in the last analysis, it is the people themselves who are filed away through the lack of creativity, transformation, and knowledge in this (at best) misguided system. For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.

In the banking concept of education, knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing. Projecting an absolute ignorance onto others, a characteristic of the ideology of oppression, negates education and knowledge as processes of inquiry…

one does not liberate people by alienating them. Authentic liberation-the process of humanization-is not another deposit to be made in men. Liberation is a praxis: the action and reflection of men and women upon their world in order to transform it.

Here we have two of the greatest ‘progressive’ thinkers in education theory making important points about the limitations of traditional education.

These progressive arguments show great concern for the child, they argue that harm is being done to children, that they are being oppressed and they are not being introduced into our ever changing world.

The opposite of this would be unpalatable. Harming children by oppressing them is not a way to make them ‘truly human’. If that is the best the ‘at best, misguided’ approach of ‘oppressive’ education can do, then who wants to have any part in it?

Praxis is ‘active’ rather than passive and, for a Marxist like Freire, praxis has a revolutionary intent. It demands creative action in the present to remake and obtain the future. It requires children to be aware of the realities of life, to be critical of these realities and then go about changing them. This can only happen by freeing people. By freeing children. Not by oppressing them.

The argument is that children should not be passive receptors of handed down discriminatory, artificial, arbitrary knowledge. They should be the makers of their future. In order for this to occur they need to be impatient and restless and want to invent and reinvent the world. This means that education is a creative and political act. Whether it is democratic or revolutionary the progressive challenge to traditional education is one of power. From teacher to pupil.

Whether through revolution or democracy, power and status is firmly established as being an important part of education, texts of the past and teachers as all-knowing ‘depositors’ of static knowledge are to be resisted. Tradition is stasis, progress is movement. Authority is challenged: ‘Why are you teaching me this? Whose knowledge? Whose history? Whose science? In order to make the future we have to be critical of the present. ‘My interests are the following… this is what I want to know about’. ‘I need to get by in today’s world, and I need to build a future for myself and my comrades.’

Who wants to stand in the way of democratic rights?

GK Chesterton articulated tradition’s refusal to give up in the face of the forces of the present taking democratic control of the future:

Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.

The fact that this is heavily ‘masculinised’ language might make it easy to scoff at, but let us look beyond that and at what is being said. Tradition, the voices of the past, should not be neglected just because they are dead. Do we forget our father’s words as soon as he takes his last breath? Do we celebrate when we are rid of our grandmothers and their stifling oppression of us? Do we rejoice when the modern crushes the historical?

I think we sometimes do and sometimes we don’t, it depends very much on the quality of the relationships and the way that their wisdom and their foolishness is passed onto us.

I think Dewey and Freire have important things to say about education, I would be wrong to reject them because they are dead men. They are part of the history of education and as an educator I should make sense of the past and the present in order to critique it. As Freire would have wanted.

It is political. The left wing voice of Freire, the more liberal voice of Dewey, represent a challenge to the conserving voices of tradition. The challenge is to an idea of sanctity, of the need for authority, and a loyalty to our forbears; three ideas that the progressive mindset doesn’t tend to hold dear. But the conservative voice is important. In a truly democratic arrangement no voices should be extinguished. The great ‘conservative’ philosopher, Edmund Burke talked of society being a contract:

It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.

This idea is an essential one in education. Dewey neglects the importance of this by dismissing it:  cultural product of societies that assumed the future would be much like the past, but should the past be an irrelevance for the political progressive?

The old laws of England—they
Whose reverend heads with age are grey,
Children of a wiser day;
And whose solemn voice must be
Thine own echo—Liberty!
Rise, like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you:
Ye are many—they are few! 

The voices of the past far from being inactive are anything but. These voices are not extolling an ideology of oppression but are, instead, as human as our present and our future. It is these voices that become authoritative through time and are, indeed, sometimes idiotic and oppressive. But we need the traditional voice:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.

And even if we see everything as ultimately futile, we are comforted or challenged, but ultimately made wiser and better by these voices.

By teaching Dewey, Freire, Shelley and Shakespeare we have an inheritance to pass on. And if the children in front of us see no purpose, are bored by this, do not want to learn it, we have a duty to the voices of the past to ensure that their voices are still heard and also to the children of the children in front of us, for they should bear the imprint of the past too.

In the past we have voices of oppression and voices of revolution. If, in the future, anyone is going to rise up, it is the voices of the past that will inspire them.

The problem with traditional education occurs when it forgets that it has a contract with the present and the future. The problem with progressive education is when it forgets the loyalty to the authority and sanctity of the voices of the past.

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

As we admire the ruins of the past, we learn about our present and begin to make our futures.

A liberal arts education has this relationship at its core. A true education tradition that stretches back over the centuries, has the often contradictory tension between past, present and future to contend with. And this is what truly liberates the child. The liberal arts teacher doesn’t see this as problematic, they are not ‘oppressing’ children or ‘banking’ deposits of knowledge nor are they teaching ‘finished’ products of a fixed world. The liberal arts tradition is an ongoing dialogue throughout all time; a continuing conversation of humankind.

This is truly democratic. Indeed, revolutionary.

School 21, A ‘Conversation’ With Peter Hyman.

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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?

Discovery Learning and the Art of Reading

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Mortimer J Adler’s and Charles Van Doren’s How to Read a Book sets out to assist readers who want to read well.

Our subject, then, is the art of reading good books when understanding is the aim you have in view

In order to help the reader to do this the authors compare teaching to reading. When you are in the presence of a teacher, they write,  you can ask him a question and if you are ‘puzzled’ by the reply: ‘you can save yourself the trouble of thinking by asking him what he means. If, however, you ask a book a question, you must answer it yourself.’

The reader has to do the work of analysis and thinking for themselves.

This is the difference between a present and an absent teacher. For the authors this is summed up by the difference between learning by instruction and learning by discovery. If you have learned a fact, they argue, you have only exercised your memory and you have not been enlightened, this only occurs when:

in addition to knowing what an author says, you know what he means and why he says it.

You need to know what is being said, you need to know the fact, it is the:’prerequisite to being enlightened. The point, however, is not to stop at being informed.’ Instruction by itself is not enough.

Adler and Van Doren illustrate this with the following quote from Montaigne:

an abecedarian ignorance that precedes knowledge, and a doctoral ignorance that comes after it.

The first is the ignorance of those who can’t or won’t read and the second is the ignorance of those we could refer to as sophomores, those who might seem ‘bookish’ but are in fact ‘poorly read’. The Greek ‘sophos’ meant ‘wise’ and ‘mōros’, ‘fool’. The fact that the Sophists were often accused of being fond of rhetoric more than reasoning or knowledge, might also serve our understanding here. Adler and Van Doren are at pains to point out the difference between being widely read and well read.

If you assume that discovery is better than instruction because it is active, you assume wrongly.

Learning by instruction is being taught by speech or writing, learning by discovery is learning:

by research, by investigation, or by reflection, without being taught… In both cases, the activity of learning goes on in the one who learns. It would be a mistake to suppose that discovery is active learning and instruction passive.

They then go further deeming that instruction is, in fact, ‘aided discovery… it is the student… who must do the learning.’ So the difference is between, what they now refer to as ‘aided and unaided’ learning. When discovering with the help of a teacher the learner learns by being taught, either from reading or listening. Unaided discovery is the ‘art of reading nature or the world’.

Reading is therefore allied to ‘instruction, being taught, or aided discovery.’ In order to be an active reader one ‘thinks’. This is where people go wrong. The writers posit that people believe thinking to be an ‘unaided’ process of discovery which, they concede, it probably is when one reads merely for entertainment or information. However, it is not true of more ‘active reading’. This type of reading cannot be done ‘thoughtlessly’. The wise-fool would find the next step a challenge because it asks the reader to be be more involved.

During the activity of reading one also thinks, observes, remembers and constructs ‘imaginatively what cannot be observed’. The authors give us this lovely example:

many people assume that though a poet must use his imagination in writing a poem, they do not have to use their imagination in reading it.

Nothing could be further from the truth. They go on to say that all the same skills that are said to be required in ‘unaided discovery’ learning are needed for reading. Reading is discovery learning with ‘help instead of without it’. In order to do this best:

we need to know how to make books teach us well.

This requires effort, observation, imagination, memory, analysis and reflection. Reading is an active process. The rest of the book teaches the reader how one might read, actively and intelligently.

Pokémon Go! Must We be Servants of the Present Moment?

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Think how useless a teacher’s greatest labours are now, when he tries to lead one single student back to the infinitely distant and elusive Hellenic world, the true homeland of our culture, and an hour later that same student reaches for a newspaper or popular novel or one of those scholarly books whose style bears the repulsive mark of today’s educational barbarism!  Friedrich Nietzsche

In 1872 this was Nietzsche’s view, I wonder what it would be now? The teacher might wish to lead a student back to a time when they reach for a newspaper, a popular novel or even a ‘popular science or self help book’…

Or the teacher might have given up on even this meagre hope. Nietzsche has it in for journalists and describes newspapers as epitomising today’s [then] educational system with both as ‘servants of the present moment‘, taking the place of

the genius, our salvation from the moment and leader for the ages

That is some teaching and learning policy, though he meant it more as a gifted and talented policy, I like to think of it as an aim for all…

I can only think a reincarnated Nietzsche would stare in horror at teaching as entirely a servant of the present moment as argued for by some who wish to ‘engage’ pupils in anything that will occupy their time at school rather than uncover their inner genius. Yet servants of the present delight in keeping up to date rather than exploring the ‘true homeland of our culture’, as one can witness with a cursory glance towards the latest ‘craze’ to hit the nation’s classrooms.

Pokémon Go is pushing Minecraft to the back of the class, Edtech magazine states there are ‘3 Ways Pokémon GO Can Create Meaningful Learning Opportunities‘ these are that it can ‘promote data literacy skills’, allow children to ‘explore the natural world’ and ‘inspire digital storytelling’. That what follows each of these is rather thin gruel seems not to worry the writer of the article. In fact in all three cases the game seems to lessen the activity rather than add to it.

Will it “help students start to become familiar with the data literacy skills of data processing, data manipulation, data presentation and data analysis”? How often will they have to play the game in order for this to occur? How many hours? Are there better ways of achieving these aims, and in more depth? In many ways this is its most obvious use, and maybe I could be persuaded but it seems little more than a passing activity. It could be argued that for autistic children it will help “research habitats that relate to where Pokémon can be found in your local area, as well as learning how to observe in a natural habitat and sketch the living creatures that you find there.” But will it get in the way of observation of the natural habitat, would the painstaking exploration of our natural environment take a backseat because of a fight in a Pokémon Gym? And finally, it might: “…fuel students’ creativity and promote language, research and technology skills by asking students to write stories around the Pokémon they capture in the game.” Or it might be a lesser way of doing that than approaching the same aim by grappling with great literature; is it better to play Pokémon Go or to read Lysistrata or the Oresteia in order to fuel creativity and promote language and research skills? As for technology, I am sure working on a production of a piece of Greek theatre will offer all sorts of opportunities for use of cutting edge technology if one would wish to really ‘Go’ for it.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed seeing my daughter play the game, we have had fun exploring and noticing things but none of this is in the detail or depth I would call educational, nor is it edutainment, it is play, and that is fine as far as it goes; I love play. But I pity my little ‘un if she has to go back to school and comes across an enthusiastic teacher who has come up with a term’s work based on Pokémon Go in order to engage her interest, it will more likely enrage her to disinterest.

In the classroom, instead of Pokémon Go, can we have Pokémon No?!! And, instead educate for:

the genius, our salvation from the moment and leader for the ages…