Category Archives: Traditional Education

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.

Schools Are Not Businesses. A Message to Lord Nash.

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Lord Nash, speaking at the Challenge Partnership national conference, titled his talk: ‘what is relevant in business to education?’ According to the TES, he said that:

“…too often teachers have confused their individuality with their professionalism… Being a professional means embracing accountability, standardisation and consistency, although of course we want our teachers to be inspiring.”

He went on to talk about how: ‘using standardised content would allow teachers to focus on delivery and differentiation, and would reduce workload.’

Adding it was impossible to: “run an organisation of any size and any diversity, efficiently and effectively if you haven’t got consistent procedures… The content has to be provided by the MAT based on evidence-based best practice across the group.”

Perhaps it is inevitable with the introduction of MATs that business issues and practices would soon come to the fore. A local school that had its own identity serving the local area would not have had to consider ‘standardisation and consistency’ to any great extent. Games staff would teach games and the physics teacher would teach physics. When you have a MAT the temptation is to have a consistent brand, in which all the teachers teach their subjects in the same ‘branded’ way. It might also be a revenue stream, selling branded curricula, lesson plans, scripts and powerpoint slides to other schools and maybe even provide ‘MOOCs’ for those who home educate or live in places where schools are difficult to access. With a standardised brand consistency might be considered key.

McDonalds, at first glance as standardised a company as you can get, soon realised that the problem with standardisation is it’s lack of adaptability.  They developed a: “…consistent customer experience and branding while still allowing for locally relevant menu and service variations in segments across the globe…”

This tension between standardisation and adaptability is an interesting one. The ‘brand’ thrives if it can sell itself as a consistent experience, when I go for a Costa coffee or buy some Marmite, I am responding to this consistency. I prefer not to take too many risks when spending my cash. And, thankfully, I like Marmite. Imagine what would happen if Marmite tried to change in order to appeal to those who dislike it, they would lose my custom, the very reason that I like Marmite might be the thing they have to change to bring in customers who don’t like the bitter taste. Adaptability can be problematic.

It is interesting that Lord Nash feels standardisation rather than adaptability is the business model that schools should adopt. He suggests standardisation would require staff to be less individualistic and more professional. I question whether this is the dichotomy here. I think the role of teachers would change, but instead of being more professional, their profession changes. They become more like a sales staff. They are provided with the product, the ‘standardised content’, and then they are required to sell this product ‘differentially’ to different consumers. As someone who worked in sales for a period of time one of the adages was that a good salesperson must believe in their product. A period of training (ITT?) would be required to sell the the product to the workforce, to convince them of its efficacy and then train them with the techniques of teaching about and selling the product to the customers, in this case pupils and their parents.

Success rates of staff could be compared, figures shared, and each teacher would then be responsible for making it work, competitively, showing they could ‘sell’ the product through ‘delivery, differentiation and inspiration’ as Nash would have it.

This ‘differentiation’ that Nash talks of is, not ‘adaptability’ of product. The sales-teacher would be expected to deliver in the classroom. The teacher will try to sell marmite to all. Actually that is not quite fair, the ‘product’ will be far more varied than a jar of marmite can ever be, and maybe ‘adaptability’ can be provided by breadth of curriculum and content.

But whether we go to a McDonalds in Beijing, Berlin or Nairobi we still feel the corporate imprint. This standardisation is its strength and its weakness. Lovers of artisanal burgers, home made or made on an organic farm, believe McDonalds is decidedly second rate to the best of these burgers. McDonalds might need to entice you in with the promise of toys for your kids to make up for the mundanity of the product. Imagine the happy meal transposed to the classroom. Happy learning. Free toy with each maths exercise completed.

Are staff working within a standardised business really more professional than those who have more control over what they do? Being paid for doing a task that is imposed upon you is different to one which you have designed for yourself. As Cicero put it:

“vulgar are the means of livelihood of all hired workmen whom we pay for mere manual labour, not for artistic skill; for in their case the very wage they receive is a pledge of their slavery” Cicero: On Obligations

Although it is possible to enjoy your work when you work in this way it is a very different relationship with the school than teachers have been traditionally used to. This might be no bad thing, because if the school staff is made up of those with little artistic skill it is better to replace them with hired hands. Yet, there might be another way to achieve some form of consistency, to be true to the tradition of teaching, be adaptable and envisage teachers to be rather more professional than Nash’s view would seem to be.

When schools deliberately ape businesses, problems can occur. The Business Academy,  Bexley  opened to great fanfare in 2002:

…the concept of openness extends to the physical layout of the school, which is based around flexible, open areas, rather than corridors and classrooms…

Classrooms look more like hi-tech offices, with clusters of flat-screen display computers and lessons taught using touch-screen whiteboards.

…gushed the BBC, reflecting the cargo cult nature of the philosophy behind the school. Get Norman Foster to expensively design a school, which looks and runs like a business then all the positive aspects of business practice will imbue every individual who passes through. This proved to be a fallacious argument.

To many teachers it would have been obvious that problems might occur by doing away with corridors and classrooms. Experienced teachers’ professional expertise might be a useful rejoinder to the inevitable hubris of those who believe they have the right answers and reason on their side and are determined to use a top down model to impose this onto a workforce.

A school is not a business and should not be run as one. This is not to say it should be run badly or operate with a balance sheet in the red, but it should be run along different lines, it should be recognised that schools far from being merely rational places that can be measured with a simple ‘bottom-line’, they can be inconsistent, inefficient and completely devoid of standardisation and yet still be places in which good teaching takes place.

A school is not a business, it is an institution.

An institution, is a place of shared knowledge, grounded in emotions and feelings which then shape reason. This was essential to Edmund Burke’s idea in which we come ‘to love the little platoon we belong to…’ we inherit the wisdom of practices that are passed down to us. Far from being individuals, we are social animals, and rather than responding kindly to being fed from the top down for our manual labour, teaching has always been a collegiate activity within which teachers express their ‘artistry’, within the traditions of their school, subject and society.

A good school has a strong ethos through which all the differences can coexist, giving out a semblance of unity of purpose. Far from being imposed through a time and motion top down management model this comes about through various traditions coalescing in the institution.

A school is not the result of some grand plan or project, made up in some grand thinker’s study or laboratory, a school is a social institution, made stronger by man’s many interactions over the years. If one rides roughshod over all this sui generis history with the imposition of alien practices which have been proven to work in another domain one might lose the very heart of what kept the institution alive in the first place.

The making of a new school is not a soulless act of efficiencies and customer pleasing activities, it is about setting in place the means by which a school can grow into an institution. In this case the need for partnership is more, yes take notice of the ever evolving ideas of how to run a school but don’t base your school on current conventions,  base it on the tried and true ideas of centuries past that is embodied in the expertise of teachers, the history of subject teaching and the great teaching tradition. This could be MAT wide, it could form the basis of ‘product’ but it would be the product of an institutional, organic approach and not the business approach that threatens to de-professionalise the workforce.

Some sort of rights and liberties should be given to teachers to be creative in their classrooms. This is adaptability. But Nash is right about the dangers of individuality, a purely anarchic approach in which every teacher is a lone figure delivering curriculum in their own eccentric style will not help the progress of a child, if from year to year she has to relearn or learn stuff that was not rooted in previous learning or is at odds with it. The teacher is not a Grand Panjandrum but needs to work professionally as part of a team of teachers designing and reviewing their curriculum collectively responding in an agile way to the changing needs of society, represented mostly by the children who attend the school, their subject knowledge and by continually refreshing their professional expertise. They don’t become professional by being denied the need to be curriculum experts.

This relies on the teacher being ‘what they ought to be’, the professional, given the responsibility in which she can grow into that role. Teachers have, for centuries, developed habits, rules, and together have created subject disciplines, various canons, books, ways of teaching, tests, terms, without resorting to imposing a blueprint from above to improve their work. The risk might be that what is imposed from above, might be worse than what they already do. And, being imposed from above, its ability to adapt might be too slow.

Evidence-based practice across a group is an excellent idea but it requires flexibility in approach. A standardised approach does not have flexibility. Adaptability when decreed from the centre can only take its expertise from outside of the group, it devalues the professionals within the group even more by always having to bring in ideas from beyond. Innovation needs to come from within too, therefore anti-fragile adaptability needs to be part of the ethos of a MAT. It can achieve this by realising that schools are not businesses, they are institutions.

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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