Today finds me in an introspective mood. Perhaps it’s the fact that my holiday is nearly over and it’s back to the gritty reality of school tomorrow. Or perhaps not. Those who have read my blogs may have the impression that I have strong and deep set views about education but actually, like many people, I am constantly beset by doubts as to the validity of my position. I read the comments and blog posts made by people with whom I don’t have much in common or with whom I tend to disagree, and sometimes, a point or a sentence here and there grabs my attention and forces me to re-evaluate. I also have a partner who often challenges my opinions and gives me new perspectives to think about. I think it’s fair to say, clichéd as it might sound, that I am on a journey.
If this opener has given you the impression that I have suddenly discovered myself to be a born again progressive, then let me disabuse you of this notion straight away. I still believe that didactic teaching, or as I prefer to say, explicit instruction, is on balance a more effective way of teaching than discovery learning. Nevertheless, I am uncomfortable with the binary way in which the progressive/traditional debate is being framed, as it sometimes feels to me as though complex issues are conflated into a simple argument. Everything is either black or white, with no grey area in between. I am particularly uncomfortable with the confident rhetoric that claims a return to traditional teaching will solve all our educational problems. It won’t. I am glad, though, to see the pendulum is shifting back in favour of more focus on knowledge as I can’t help but feel that there has been an inexorable dumbing down in education for the past decade or two. But swinging back the pendulum shouldn’t be the end of the story. There is much else to focus on and ponder.
The ones that got away
I read an interesting blog by Ed Podesta in which he talked about how he is sometimes haunted by “the ones that got away”. This seemed to strike a chord with many other teachers on my Twitter feed and I can understand why. Many of us enter teaching because we want to be a force for good, helping disadvantaged children overcome their disadvantages and forge successful lives. I myself am not immune to that kind of sentiment. Part of my decision to get into teaching was, I’m sure, prompted by a wish to do my bit and give back to society. But while teaching does have a public service element to it, I think it can sometimes be dangerous and counterproductive to get into that mindset of being a “saviour” of the poor children in society.
It puts too much pressure on teachers to perform and heaps terrible guilt on them when they perceive themselves to have failed a particular pupil. It also, more importantly, diminishes the pupil’s sense of responsibility for his or her learning. If a child’s lack of academic achievement is attributed primarily to the teacher and not to the child herself, what kind of message does that send? I failed my exam because you were a crap teacher, not because I didn’t listen in class and put in the necessary work. As teachers, we do need to have a reality check every now and then. Some kids, no matter how much effort you expend on them, will just not play ball. It’s not in our powers to “fix” everyone. As the saying goes, you can take the horse to the water but you can’t make it drink.
There is another issue here too, quite apart from teacher guilt and pupil responsibility. Sometimes, when we have a difficult or challenging pupil, we spend too much time focussing on them, trying different approaches to make them engage, and forget about the other pupils in class who are doing the right thing, trying hard but not getting the attention.
Since September, I have been supporting a Syrian girl who arrived here as a refugee last summer. I have been teaching her English one-on-one as well as supporting her in the classroom during other lessons. Initially I was filled with enthusiasm and a satisfying sense of pleasure at the idea of actively helping alleviate the suffering of someone affected by war, rather than watching ineffectually from the sidelines. My enthusiasm has dimmed somewhat over the last few months. She has made some progress, but teaching her is a rather unrewarding experience because of her extremely passive nature. She is not particularly hungry to learn. When faced with a slightly difficult problem, her standard response is to say she can’t do it and refuse to put in any further effort. She has quickly worked out that her teachers have zero expectations of her and that everyone is bending over backwards to make excuses for her, so she just doesn’t bother to put in much of an effort.
One day when she was absent from school, I made myself useful in the class and sat next to another EAL girl from Spain who, funnily enough, arrived in the UK at around the same time as the Syrian girl. This Spanish student has picked up English a lot quicker, probably because there is more in common between Spanish and English than between Arabic and English, but also because she is bright and proactive in wanting to learn. The Spanish EAL student doesn’t receive any additional support, compared to the Syrian girl who is literally smothered with support. That day, I redressed the balance and what a satisfying experience it was, having someone listen, respond and take heed of my instruction. What a pity that the rest of the time, this poor girl doesn’t get a look in.
We should be careful not to let our pity for someone’s plight, or frustration with someone’s lack of response to all our input, divert us from the ones who sit quietly in the background and are easily forgotten. At the end of the day, every person must tread their own path, make their own mistakes and deal with the consequences. Sometimes it is these very consequences that are the making of them. We can’t play God and think we are responsible for the success or failure of pupils (as long as we have reasonably fulfilled our duty as teachers).
Is traditional education prioritising the academic over the practical?
I also recently came upon Sue Gerrard’s blog, which gave a critique of Martin Robinson’s recent arguments regarding the differences between traditional and progressive education, with the former primarily subject-centred and the latter more child-centred. I was much struck by these two paragraphs:
“Recent events suggest that policy-makers who attended even ‘the best’ private schools, where cultural literacy was highly valued, have struggled to generate workable solutions to the main challenges facing the human race; the four identified by Capra and Luisi (2014) are globalisation, climate change, agriculture, and sustainable design. The root causes and the main consequences of such challenges involve the lowest, very concrete levels that would be familiar to ancient Greek farmers, coppersmiths and merchants, to mediaeval carpenters and weavers, and to those who work in modern factories, but might be unfamiliar to philosophers, scholars or politicians who could rely on slaves or servants.
An education that equips people for life rather than work does not have to put language and ideas on a pedestal; we are embodied beings that live in a world that is uncompromisingly concrete and sometimes sordidly practical. An all-round education will involve practical science, technology and hands-on craft skills, not to prepare students for a job, but so they know how the world works. It will not just prepare them for participating in conversations.”
I can’t help but see the truth in a lot of this. Was it not David Cameron, that intellectually brilliant Oxford PPE graduate, who insouciantly precipitated the uncertain times in which we live in? I see time and again, not just in politics but in other professions too, highly intelligent and intellectual people make rather ill judged decisions, unaware or uncaring of the impact they will have on ordinary people. This disconnect between the privileged rich and us more common mortals is brilliantly illustrated in this Guardian article about Steve Hilton. And let’s not forget Michael Gove, that soi-disant purveyor of clever phrases. Has his towering intellect given him a real insight into societal needs? Maybe not.
Focussing on knowledge as the foundation for critical thinking is important, but what kind of knowledge are we talking about? The best that has been thought or said, is usually the stock answer. Yes, knowledge of language, history, geography, literature, maths and science is crucial, but there is other, practical knowledge, which far too often gets forgotten in academically driven institutions. I myself received a privileged private education for which I am very grateful. But sometimes, I wish that someone had taught me how to change a car tyre or fix a punctured bicycle tyre. I wish I had learned how to use a power drill or how to grow vegetables and make compost. I wish someone had taught me about how to navigate the politics of office life and not let other, more extrovert colleagues, steal a march on me. This is not an exhaustive list by the way.
Yes let’s shout out about the benefits of traditional education, celebrate rigour, knowledge and discipline. Let’s not, along the way, forget that there is a whole lot more to education than the classic academic disciplines. Naturally, with school time in finite supply, it is not possible to learn everything, but it would be nice to have a truly rich and broad curriculum that takes into account those less than academic subjects. Does this mean I’m a traditionalist with a hint of progressive in me? Perhaps so.