Category Archives: knowledge

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

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.

Teachers Should Pass Knowledge On

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To avoid misunderstanding: it seems to me that conservatism, in the sense of conservation, is of the essence of the educational activity

Hannah Arendt

According to the sleeve notes of their new album, Blue and Lonesome, Rolling Stones’ guitarist, Keith Richards, wants written on his gravestone:

He passed it on

The gnarled rockers’ latest album returns to their roots, echoing their first LP, it is a homage, a love story, a dedicated exploration of the blues. With each of the twelve bars and harmonica blow the Stones pass it on and if they hadn’t ever bothered what would our musical culture be like now?

It is not for us, it is not for them, it is for the love of the music itself that they pass it on. From Muddy Waters to Chuck Berry the Stones helped introduce these guys to our shores. Nowadays some may complain about cultural appropriation, I prefer to call it cultural education, conserving and adding to our culture. From the swamps of the Mississippi and Can’t be Satisfied to Satisfaction (I Can’t Get No) and the Thames Estuary, the flow of time and the Hoochie Coochie would bring the bluesmen together, it is the music that they are servants to.

As Hannah Arendt said, education must be conservative, in the sense of conservation and this is an important part of the job. Pass it on, from oral, to written, to online; we have a duty to conserve the things that matter and even some of the things that don’t just in case that, one day, they might.

As Hector says in The History Boys:

Pass the parcel. That’s sometimes all you can do. Take it, feel it and pass it on. Not for me, not for you, but for someone, somewhere, one day. Pass it on, boys. That’s the game I want you to learn. Pass it on.

The late great Alexis Korner the ‘father’ of British Blues said of the time just after the war:

In those days, between the ages of 12 and 18 you meant nothing. You were the extra place at the side table if someone came to dinner. You were too big to be petted or fondled or thought pretty and you were too small to work and you were of no interest to anyone, and you had a chance to learn—this is what’s missed today

In many of the arguments about what to teach many talk about what might be good for the child, what might be useful, accessible, engaging, fewer talk about what might be for the good of the subject itself. Maybe if the ‘needs’ of the child were to become less of a concern, instead of worrying about their destinations and putting their every piece of work under scrutiny, we could rebalance things. Teach what is good for the survival of the subject, one day it might make a difference to someone.

Teach Shakespeare’s plays for the intrinsic gift of the plays themselves. And play the Blues, because of the intrinsic gift of the blues. The chance encounter between Richards and Jagger on platform two at Dartford railway station, found the old school chums brought together by a mutual love of the blues, a band formed with the need to pass that love on, to add to it, and, now, on their latest album back to their roots again as they go full circle back to the tradition.

Teachers pass on the stories of their subjects, not because it is intrinsically good for the child, for the job market or for the betterment of humanity, but because they have to. This is the gift the teacher gives, every day. This is why what you pass on has to be qualitatively superior, as it is for the good of the art, and those arts, in turn, survive because they are the saviour of someone, somewhere, sometime, even though the charges in front of you in a lesson don’t get it, one day a child of a child of a pupil in front of you might, and that’s why you keep going.

Muddy Waters had no idea the satisfaction his music would create for two teenagers in Dartford, but thankfully he just passed it on. Changed it and passed it on.

Why Knowledge Matters by E.D. Hirsch Jr.

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ED Hirsch Jr.’s new book ‘Why Knowledge Matters’ is a good read. It covers some old ground, focuses on areas in which his mind has changed and clarifies others in the light of experience and research. I am pleased to see, in his acknowledgements, that we share some similar philosophical interests, especially Husserl, Hegel and Gramsci. Hirsch is no lightweight and, at his great age, he still cares very much about the education of the young.

This book matters. In it he argues for the importance of curriculum and that this curriculum should be grounded in knowledge that should be imparted systematically and, in answer to the chaos mongers oft repeated question ‘ah, but whose knowledge?’ he replies it should be ‘the knowledge that is commonly possessed by successful citizens…’ Success is defined as being: “a person with autonomy, who commands respect…”

The book is much concerned about the French revolution, not the one that so exercised Edmund Burke but the more recent one in which the French have moved from a curriculum of which Hirsch greatly approved to one that is more akin to the American one, which he abhors. From Condorcet in 1790 and his ‘common education for children,’ through to Giscard d’Estaing in 1977 who trumpeted: “The defining and acquiring of the very same knowledge by all French children, who from now will all go to the same primary school, and the same middle school, will be an essential element in the unity of French society, and in the reduction of inequalities of opportunity;” the French have had a national belief in uniformity – egalité. It was the conflict between this and another part of the French raison d’être, ‘liberté’ that was, maybe, behind the 1989 change to this approach. The ‘Loi Jospin’ set up local curriculums in which more attention was to be paid to the individuality of the pupil. Hirsch emphasises the progressive buzz words, ‘critical thinking’ and ‘learning to learn’, that began to infect these ‘projets’.

Hirsch points out that, buildings, budgets and teacher quality remained pretty constant in France and the excellent early years education stayed the same. What changed significantly was the curriculum and the pedagogy of the elementary or primary school. French education ministry data reports: “An astonishingly steep decline in achievement in each demographic group… Each group was academically harmed by the new system…” And that harm hit the poorest the hardest. This is what motivates Hirsch, the damage being done to social justice. Hirsch is a creature of the left. In France, Hirsch notes, this decline in education standards is called the ‘crisis of the school.’

To allay this crisis in France, in the USA and, indeed in other countries including the UK Hirsch recommends the following three points:

“Early education should be chiefly communal – focused on gaining proficiency in the language and the conventions the public sphere.

Every child in each locality should study basically the same early curriculum.

The unifying aim of early schooling is autonomy and equality of opportunity: to impart to every child the enabling knowledge that is possessed by the most successful adults in the wider society.”

Hirsch sees the dispute as being between the ‘naturalists’ and the ‘communalists’, the naturalists extol the virtues of following the child’s natural development, (though Hirsch points out this is a highly disputed area) this is a child centred approach, the communalists are against individualisation, his key point is this:

‘Elementary school is a time for building socialisation as the only means through which individuality can ultimately express itself.’

The communalist teaches shared language, codes of behaviour, to give children shared memberships of the ‘tribe’. He dismisses ideas that this becomes a ‘factory’ type schooling pointing out the high stakes soulless testing factories are a feature of schools where the lack of basic knowledge of the pupils has led to extreme measures being adopted to over compensate for badly thought through curriculum and pedagogy.

It is this communal principal that is the heart of his book, in which children should have a ‘shared, enabling knowledge, and language.’ the ‘taken-for-granted knowledge’ of the ‘standard language’. He calls this ‘communal knowledge’, this is a change from what he used to refer to as ‘cultural literacy’.

In a talk I attended last year Hirsch emphasised that,”self actualisation” is an important purpose for schooling but that this should be more of a feature of secondary schooling rather than primary.

Hirsch complains that schools often boast in their mission statements that they will provide a personalised education for children.It is this fragmentation of the curriculum that has led, Hirsch suggests, to the idea of the need for skills education, usually in the form of: “critical thinking, creative thinking, problem-solving, and co-operative thinking.” It is the hope of individualism, argues Hirsch, that these skills will render the lack of coherent curricula unimportant as the skills will be such that the free individualised human being will be able to discover curricula for themselves as they will have the ability to critically think for themselves about any content. Hirsch can see the logic of this argument, but it is because no-one is forthright enough to challenge the individualism at the heart of American society that means that a logical, sequential curriculum is not going to occur and children have to be given the tools to cope with this lack of coherence. The problem is, the tools can’t cope. This is where the domain specificity of skills comes in. One can try to critically think one’s way around a multiplicity of fields, but the less you know about an area the more difficult it is to think critically about it. He suggests the ‘skills’ pioneers are right to seek an overarching approach to education, for what is the desire for creativity, critical thinking and collaboration for all but a unifying approach to curriculum design and pedagogy? The problem is this unifying approach doesn’t work. The only unifying approach that can hope to succeed is one that is based on a coherent curriculum.

With this argument Hirsch sets up his wonderful book.

I agree with so much here but, if I may, I wish to lend a cautionary note. The French top-down approach to their language, to their society is very different to the approach of the English speaking world. We baulk at French policing of the Burkha and, even the Burkini on beaches. Rather than having egalité and liberté in a slogan around our necks we, in the UK, understand the tension between these laudable aims and as ever try to muddle through. I would argue that a national curriculum is a most ‘unBritish’ affair, its introduction into this country solved some problems and created others. By making the curriculum the plaything of politicians we have the more child centred curriculums ‘for Excellence’ in Scotland,  and the new curriculum in Wales, and the short lived 2007 national curriculum in England. By making a curriculum national doesn’t mean we get a coherent knowledge based curriculum, it can mean the opposite. The problem with it being national is then all children in a Nation have to suffer an incoherent curriculum with the only escape from it being open to those who are wealthy enough to be able to opt out and put their child into the independent sector.

A national, top down, approach is ‘Fragile’,  it is likely to break due to the inevitable outside pressures on it. By making it a political tool, politicians keep making headline additions to it, more drugs ed, sex ed, porn-ed, British values, you name it in the Daily Mail one day it’s in the curriculum the next. This inevitable tinkering with the curriculum leads to it being less coherent by the year. On top of that if attainment measures show a marked decline a crisis is announced, wholesale changes are made, the system cracks under pressure and because no-one has any expertise in doing things in different ways, as everyone has been teaching in similar ways because of the central diktat, this shock is more because it requires wholesale changes to methods. By having people already working on different ways of delivering a curriculum we keep generating expertise. As there is probably ‘not’ just one way to deliver a ‘coherent curriculum’ it is important to keep our options open. It is the importance of the idea of coherence that should permeate the system not a command from on high telling teachers what that coherence is.

This brings me to my next point. If teachers are told what the curriculum contains they are left to concern themselves with pedagogy. How to teach things starts to exercise our minds and we end up looking to ‘engage’ pupils, we try to be ‘creative’ and look for a myriad of tricks; because we do not have an underlying stake in the curriculum itself we do not fully understand its logic or, worse, we disagree with it and try to undermine it in some way. Hirsch is right to emphasise the communal aspect and this should be in teaching also. A coherent curriculum needs to be designed by those who are to teach it, not individually but together, review it regularly together, and see pedagogy as inextricably linked to the curriculum. For me, the trivium approach, is an extremely useful way of seeing this connectivity and is the way forward to help teachers see that the way and the what over a whole curriculum from ages 3-19 has an internal logic which they understand completely as they have been involved in the creation of it. The trivium approach also has the added advantage of bringing arguments about what and why to teach certain texts and events into the curriculum itself; a trivium approach recognises that these things can be highly contested and that this ‘dialectic’ can be an invigorating part of teaching and learning. It is not satisfactory to merely state that one should teach: “the knowledge that is commonly possessed by successful citizens.” This means that Latin, for one, would never be in any curriculum, nor the finer aspects of architecture, music or making a bookshelf. And as for defining a ‘successful’ citizen… Donald Trump? Wayne Rooney? We need teachers to think about the qualities of their subject rather than some abstract notion of what constitutes a successful citizen and trying to prove what they ‘know’.

That this curriculum creation can be done in one school or, even in a Multi-Academy Trust brings me to my last point, if a parent and/or child doesn’t like the curriculum offer of a particular school they should have the choice to go to another. We need this choice. If one school offers Latin throughout and the IB at 16 I might prefer it to one that only has French and A levels. I might prefer a school that recognises the importance of the Arts to one that is all STEM obsessed and in which business studies takes centre stage rather than music. In a Primary I might prefer a school that teaches subjects from 7 yrs old to one that insists on project-based learning. If all these choices are dictated by central government and I have no choice but to try to vote them out every five years the education of my child will be sorely affected.

A National Curriculum is great if you agree with it and it suits your child.

In summation: I say yes to a communal, knowledge based curriculum, just not one imposed from above. Rather one that is written communally as well as offering a rejoinder to excessive individualisation.

NB: This commentary is based on the prologue, I will write further about this excellent book in the coming days and maybe adjust my thoughts as I read further.