Category Archives: Traditional Education

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.

 

Get Kids Cultured

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To be cultured means to nail one’s colours to the mast, and those who fear what’s arbitrary in that (and run to theory for protection) fear culture itself.

Howard Jacobson

The importance of tradition, the great tradition, is not that it is the only possibility but it is the best one that we have. For Jacobson, his tutor at Cambridge, FR Leavis, opened up a world of education to him:

Leavis told a particular story about English literature. It’s not the only one. But we owe it to him to show that, so far, nobody has told a better one, or told it with a braver conviction of why it matters to tell it at all.

Being right isn’t what matters to Jacobson but it is the ‘nailing one’s colours to the mast’ that does. This is ‘being cultured’. The vision for education is important, to be involved in that conversation, to add to it, to argue, to say ‘yes… but…’ but not to dismiss and the involvement in the dialogue is lifelong.

It is telling that in a piece called:

Building 21st-century skills: preparing pupils for the future, that a life ‘after education’ is envisaged:

In an ever-evolving world, how can we ensure that future generations have the skills that will truly prepare them for life after education?

In the past I have called this type of progressive education ‘neo-progressivism’. Instead of being revolutionary it is tied to the interests of global capitalism. Instead of education being an ever-evolving involvement with a lifetime of reading and exploring the rich tapestry of culture, the neo-progresssive sees education as a finite vehicle for the good of global capitalism. In her sponsored piece in the Guardian Jessica Clifton, the marketing manager for Lego Education nails her colours to the mast:

…there is a certain expectation to simply fill students with facts and figures. However, this can actually hinder learning, limiting students’ potential to explore concepts and discover solutions for themselves. What we need to do is, quite literally, put learning into students’ hands.

Which, for Jessica is Lego. And I love lego, but it is not ‘Culture’. It is a great toy, and toys can be used for great art; through their knowledge of Goya, the Chapman Brothers, were driven to create works of ‘vertiginous obscenity’ by melting down toy soldiers, maiming, twisting and painting them. The art created is dystopian and disturbing. This is not the vision Lego Education has when it wants to put learning in students’ hands. The article sees education as far more sterile, it quotes Andy Snape, assistant head of sixth form at Newcastle-under-Lyme College, as saying:

“As a teacher, I want to give students the greatest opportunities to achieve and I have found hands-on, creative lessons to be the most effective. Why? Because this learning style not only enthuses and engages pupils, but gives them the chance to understand the purpose of what they’re learning… we use LEGO® MINDSTORMS® Education EV3 to teach engineering, mathematics and computing, as well as using it for an extracurricular robotics club. Using the central programmable “Intelligent Brick”, students can design and build robotic solutions to different scenarios and problems. This could be anything from a sorting system that organises items into distinct categories based on colour, or a prototype space rover that avoids obstacles and performs basic tasks remotely.”

Education as a means to an end, not a life within culture but one that sees education as having a predetermined purpose, to serve the needs of business. It is the misunderstanding of creativity that irks me most. Let us nail our colours to the mast, creativity is not a ‘learning style’, it can be downright dangerous and dirty, but as a great  education cliche it has become the clinical servant of capital. Lego education, Persil et al, who peddle this version of creativity are anti-education, anti-culture, and paradoxically anti-creativity. Creativity is a life force, central to humanity and not the servant of a utilitarian drive to get people into STEM subjects to prepare them for the jobs that have yet to be invented.

This is the tension between tradition and progress; on the side of tradition we have great art, literature and the humanities and a continual dialogue, a great cultural education. On the side of progress we have Lego, STEM subjects (not the subjects themselves but their adoption as ‘a thing’) and an education that finishes when the world of work has taken over your life, this education is anti-cultural. It is the philistine fear of a truly cultural education that drives much of the verbiage of the neo-progressive movement. For them it is all brands, futurology, and education for utility: ‘Mcdonaldisation’; it is the sort of education that will halt progress in its tracks, for it forgets the importance of facts and figures and the knowledge and richness of the past. For all their trumpeting of creativity the neo-progressives can’t create a better story than the one education has been telling for centuries.

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The Importance of Debate in Schools

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Creating a culture of speech in your classroom means having everyone doing it, not simply those that are willing – do not let students ‘hide’.

Andrew Fitch,  from the book: Trivium in Practice

In a piece for the TES, Jonathan Simons, head of Education for Policy Exchange, wrote about the importance of debating:

To debate, participants must analyse complex issues of ethics, law, politics, science… it teaches rhetoric, and the ability to stand up and speak in front of an audience. It demands confidence in one’s position. It requires teamwork between speakers. It instils general knowledge. It is transformative.

Simons also points out that debating has been a central feature of our best universities for centuries. As Petrus Ramus put it in his Dialectica of Invention:

What is Dialectica ? A. DIALECTICA IS THE (sic) art of disputing well…

It is the art of dialectic, that puts questioning, reasoning, critical thinking and logic at the heart of the trivium. These are all essential attributes of a great education and to be able to do them well can help ensure that young people perform well academically and, indeed, socially.

It is not enough for schools just to teach knowledge, knowledge is the base of great thinking, but without the practice of using knowledge to challenge and rise to the occasion when challenged, an academic education falters. Argument is key to thinking well.

Andrew Fitch, the director of spoken literacy at Highbury Grove School helped coach the England schools  debating team that won this year’s world debating championships held in Stuttgart. Highbury Grove school, under the leadership of Tom Sherrington, is undergoing the process of putting trivium principles at the heart of the educational offer to their pupils.

In the book, Trivium in Practice Andrew Fitch has contributed an excellent short guide for teachers called: “Spoken Literacy and Rhetoric in the Classroom…” In his introduction he writes:

…using the three part trivium structure, I have utilised debate, in a variety of forms, to ask students to intellectually engage with relevant material through being forced to attack and defend various aspects of the knowledge that they have been given… Through argument generation and speech creation, students dialectically engage with the material, developing a familiarity with it beyond the simple stating of facts.

Debating competitions and debating societies should be a feature of all good schools. However most young people will not engage with it until debate features as a part of the everyday curriculum. By having to think clearly and defend or attack an idea, a work, or a philosophy, children will be challenged and, in turn, will understand more about the content of the curriculum and what it means to them and the society of which they are a part. I would go so far as to say by grappling with the playfulness of ideas in this way they will, in turn, become more engaged with the issues they are debating and that can only be a good thing.

 

When Push Comes to Shove: Kant’s Dove

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The dove, in free flight cutting through the air the resistance of which it feels, could get the idea that it could do even better in airless space.  Immanuel Kant: Critique of Pure Reason

Pity our free spirits, constrained by the school and kicking against the pricks. Teenagers, angst ridden, knowing full well if the school wasn’t there they would be free! Free to be themselves! They could be a contender! Free to make a difference to the world!

A great school tries to get kids to, metaphorically, fly. To the pupils this can sometimes seem like the opposite and it just isn’t fair, in fact it’s a drag; literally.

Weight, lift, thrust and drag are all needed to fly.

Opposite forces can combine to help achieve what can’t be achieved by doing away with those forces that might seem to hinder.

Ensuring the right balance is achieved is an art. Too much drag, too much push and too much pull…

No-one can breath in an airless space.

 

Theresa May Went to my School

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In her foreword to the book School Songs and Gymslips Theresa May née Brasier wrote:

I went to Holton Park Grammar School in the 1970s and during my time there it changed from a girl’s grammar school to a co-educational comprehensive…

By the time I arrived, in 1975, Theresa May was at Oxford University and the school was now called, ‘Wheatley Park Comprehensive’. I started in the second year (year 8) at the old Secondary Modern site of the Shotover School in Wheatley, which had merged with the grammar in 1971. Later, as a fourth year, I moved to what was known as the Upper Site, mainly in the new build near the entrance of the school and some nissen huts from an old US military hospital in the grounds of Holton Park. There was a moat and a manor house, where the old grammar school had been based (pictured above). For a comprehensive school the grounds were abundant, on both sites, we could run and hide and run and hide we did.

In her book about Holton Park Girls, Marilyn Yurdan, wrote that a 1955 report made by the Ministry of Education described:

…the catchment area from which the pupils came from as ‘a sparsely populated rural area’ extending a dozen or so miles to the foot of the Chilterns and about 4 miles to the north and west. Pupils came from about twenty-five different primary schools. Over 80% came to school by bus, the furthest away having a journey of more than 14 miles…

The report also made the following salient point:

‘The area does not produce a large number of pupils of Grammar School calibre… if the school is to remain full it is necessary to admit a proportion of girls with relatively little academic ability’.

Not all grammar schools cream off the creme de la creme!

By the time I arrived twenty years later the school was in chaos. The Headteacher and senior leaders from the grammar school had remained in charge and the teaching for the top sets was mainly done by old grammar school staff. That we all were being brought up in an area in which there were few of grammar school calibre makes one wonder what it is about rural peasant stock that even a comprehensive school couldn’t sort out. Little aspiration, little hope, we certainly didn’t dream of the spires of Oxford that were just along the A40. Theresa would have been protected from the chaos due to her being educated away from the oiks, across the moat in the old manor, with the same staff and grammar school mores she had become used to. As the school was full of children of ‘little academic ability’ she had also seen herself rise meteorically, being moved up a year and was therefore untainted by the ‘comprehensivisation’.

In Robert Peal’s book Progressively Worse the period 1969-1979 is given the subtitle ‘Riot’, and a more suitable word I cannot think of. That the riot was fed by a huge amount of apathy on both pupils and teachers behalf might give you a feel for how it came across. Anarchy today? Nah, just a bit of passive resistance; the next day motorbikes in the school corridor and a teacher’s car turned over onto its roof. Discipline was attempted by some stronger Secondary Modern teachers, the cane, the ruler, the slipper, the detention and lines and a scary deputy head who was entrenched in the Lower School.

We were streamed and in sets and in the top sets copying out of books and/or copying off boards, was the order of the day. An over reliance on text books or worksheets or reading Macbeth out loud in class for weeks on end might have worked for the girls of Holton Park with “little academic ability” but for us many boys full of hormones and 1970’s angst it really didn’t nor did it work for many of the new girls, hormones and angst would have been a good name for a punk band; a few of my friends did reasonably well is one thing, knowing how much more they could’ve done is another.

A new teacher arrived and he gave us a vote as to whether we should call him sir or by his first name ‘Alan’, we voted to call him ‘sir’… He was the most progressive teacher I can remember and he taught us in rows… but he wrote a musical and I was in it, and we were in the national press, this got me interested in theatre which I will always thank him for… but my overriding memory of school is one of never working very hard, hardly ever being stretched and, having moved from bottom sets to top sets in languages and Maths after a term or two of starting the school, with no catch up lessons, I spent those lessons being totally confused as to what was going on.

It wasn’t progressive teaching that did for me, it was bad teaching, ill thought through curricula, bad or irregular discipline and very low expectations. I wonder how much grammar school education got away with being poor due to a placid intake? There was a malaise on behalf of the teachers and also a lack of ambition in us rural types. The problem was lazy traditionalism: talk and chalk, text book, copy, sometimes marked with a tick, a C+ and a ‘good’. Even if this had been allied with good discipline it would have failed many of us.

Many of those around education who might look back on their school days as hours of boredom, might wish for edutainment approaches but thinking children should all be taught in groups via discovery learning techniques or being educated through ‘Minecraft’ or Pokémon Go does not address the issue. I can see how some teachers have ended up putting an emphasis on the need to motivate and engage pupils, especially boys, and why they sometimes talk about texts not being for ‘our kids’ but none of these things allay the problem of poor teaching.

What I was crying out for was great texts, high expectations, teachers responding to my confusion, knowing what I didn’t know and explaining it to me. I was crying out for great classroom dialogue, stretching me, questioning me, not ignoring me… My cheekiness was probably a cry of “Help! Educate me please!!” Looking back over my exercise books what strikes me is how empty they were, as was my mind, and even the hours of copying from the board resulted in little being copied down, because in the most tedious of lessons we rioted. If only there had been an expectation of us useless idiots producing some great quality work, then more of us might have done!

As for Theresa, the Wheatley Vicar’s daughter, she certainly got out in time but I suspect even for her the secondary school could have done so much more and I wonder if she had attended a better school whether she would have got a better degree than a second class honours at Oxford.

 

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