Is traditional teaching oppressive?

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On Tuesday, I had to take my 8-year old son with me to attend a meeting after school with our new acting principal. He brought along a book with him to read and was admonished to be quiet and well behaved, which thankfully he was. This was the first time I had brought my son to my workplace and the following day, several colleagues came up to me with fulsome praise for him. Naturally, this filled me with tremendous pride but on the back of this came the thought: “if only they knew how bloody hard it’s been to get to this point!”

Civilising a young child is not easy and often involves a battle of wills. I’ve lost count of the times my son has called me “meanie”, “the worst mummy in the world” or simply told me he doesn’t love me anymore. The last time I got on his wrong side, he looked at me crossly and said “you need to go to mummy school!” Thankfully, such episodes are becoming few and far between as he matures and learns how to moderate his behaviour. He is also, by the way, delightfully affectionate, more so now than when he was younger. Far from oppressing him, my discipline has liberated him. He is a happy and secure boy who feels loved.

No one I think would disagree that parenting involves putting boundaries and saying “no” from time to time – being “the bad guy”. Yes of course, encouragement and praise are given but there are going to be times when you have to be the adult and say “no”.  It’s not easy to do this. You love your child and don’t want to see him unhappy. But you know, ultimately, that it is your responsibility to teach him the social skills he will need to live a contented and fulfilled life. I want my son to have good manners, to have self-control, to be kind and respectful to others, to be well-read and knowledgeable. I want to pass on my values to him and yes, I want to influence the way he sees the world. Does that mean I am brainwashing him and thereby oppressing him in some way? I don’t think so. As he grows up, he will increasingly get more freedom to choose what he wants to say and do. I hope that he will remember what we his parents have taught him and heed our advice but once he reaches adulthood, he will be free to follow in our footsteps or tread a totally different path. He will take with him the knowledge and habits we have instilled in him and make of them what he will.

One could approach this argument from the opposite perspective. What if I had not given my son boundaries, what if I had let him indulge in whatever habits he pleased? Would that not be considered a form of oppression? Surely that would be child neglect? We have a responsibility towards our children to teach them what we think is best. I’m afraid, the child doesn’t get to choose this, we do. We know better because we are older and more knowledgeable – and we were taught much of this by our own parents when we were children. Anyone who has read Lord of the Flies is aware of what chaos results from children being set loose without adult supervision. What we do as parents is a sort of benign dictatorship, not a democracy. We listen to our children, we care for their wellbeing but what we say goes. We are the boss, not them.

A similar argument can be put forward towards schools: they are not democracies but benign dictatorships. There are rules that pupils must follow. The teachers have authority. If a teacher asks pupils to write something in their books, then that is what they must do. Imagine if a pupil said “no, I want to have a chat with my friend right now”, what kind of problems would ensue. If we agree that teachers must have authority in schools, it is not much of a stretch to then agree that they should be the ones imparting knowledge not the other way around, and that this balance of power is needed, not to oppress but to liberate our children through furthering their education.

Why am I discussing this particular issue today? It is because I just read Martin Robinson’s blog entitled “The Problems with Traditional Education”. In it he discusses the philosophies of Dewey and Freire, and how they viewed traditional education to be oppressive. According to Freire:

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.

Many of these ideas have percolated into the way teachers today view their role. Didactic teaching, where the teacher explicitly instructs the pupil, is considered to be not only a retrograde but a kind of fascist way of teaching. Better to have group work and activities where the pupils can feel a sense of agency rather than turning them into passive “receptacles”.  This in turn feeds the idea that pupils will not learn unless they are actively doing something. Simply listening to the teacher will not result in learning. I have seen a few examples of this in year 10 history lessons at my school, where I think this approach is counterproductive. Here are two sets of activities we did in our last lesson that illustrate my point.

The activity: pupils were given a sheet with three columns, and a handful of questions at the top of each column. They were told to look at a page range in their textbook and use that information to answer the questions on their sheets within 20 minutes. To help them with their work, they were allowed to listen to music on their headphones.

My verdict: rather than explaining, discussing and shaping a better understanding of this topic through questions and answers, the teacher expected pupils to pick up the required knowledge from the textbook. The pupils in turn, were mostly successful at finding the correct answer in the textbook but instead of writing it in their own words (literacy being particularly poor) they copied the text word for word. In this instance, it feels to me that the teacher abrogated his responsibility to teach and allowed the textbook to do the teaching for him, all on the mistaken belief that more learning will take place if a task is undertaken independently. This kind of independent learning can occur but only when the people doing the reading are already experts, that is, they already have the skills needed to gather information, process it and formulate an answer in their own words. Finally, allowing the pupils to listen to music on their headphones while they worked sent out the message that we don’t have an expectation of them being able to work quietly, without the distraction of music.

The activity: the pupils watched a video of a documentary about Elizabeth 1st by David Starkey. They had a sheet with questions, the answers to which would be revealed in the documentary. The video was often paused, and even rewound, to allow the pupils to note down their answers. Many of the questions on the sheet would not make sense unless you were watching the video. So for instance, “why were the rebels surprised?” does not make sense unless you are following the narrative in the video.

My verdict: again, the teacher is letting someone else do the teaching for him, in this case, the eminent David Starkey. It points to a disturbing trend in history teaching, in line with the idea that you can look up facts on Google so don’t need to know them, where the teacher is no longer an expert in his subject and lets either the textbook or the academic on the YouTube video dispense the knowledge. The teacher is now more of a facilitator than a teacher. The other thing I noticed is that, by constantly pausing the video, the flow of the narrative was lost and the pupils were actually spoon-fed the answers so there wasn’t much effort or thought involved (and therefore very little likelihood of anything entering long-term memory from this exercise). If you are going to use a video documentary, then watch it all without pausing and then discuss with the class what has been learned.

I do not believe that traditional teaching – and by this I mean explicit teacher-led instruction that focuses on the transmission of knowledge – is oppressive. On the contrary, it is progressive methods, usually effective only when the student is already highly skilled (thereby favouring the more wealthy children in society) that are oppressive in the way they can reinforce societal inequalities. The ideology that says teacher talk is authoritarian and should be kept to a minimum has been very damaging to our students (as well as to our teachers who have been thoroughly de-skilled). In many instances, explicit instruction from the teacher is the most effective way of learning important knowledge. Far from being oppressive, this knowledge is empowering.

I will end with one last example. I have recently taught my son how to use a knife and fork to cut his food (for far too long we were relying on finger foods). I explained how to do it, and demonstrated how to hold the fork and how to cut with the knife. I watched him try it out and corrected his mistakes. Imagine if instead, I had given my son a knife and folk and said to him “go and independently work out how to use them”. I rest my case.

Today’s musings

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.

Grammars or Michaela-style Free Schools?

Today, I read a fascinating exchange of ideas between Heather Fearn and Katharine Birbalsingh regarding grammar schools. It was refreshing to hear an alternative point of view to the usual one peddled about grammars: namely that they are full of middle class children and that they adversely affect the other children in the area by turning local comprehensives into secondary moderns.

Don’t get me wrong, I have much sympathy for that viewpoint and in fact, have first-hand experience of the predicament it describes. My stepson grew up in Kent and failed his 11-plus by a whisker. Had he had access to tutoring and the right kind of academic support at home, as is commonly the case in well healed middle class families, he would most likely have passed. However, instead of going to the grammar, he found himself enrolled at the local high school, where his academic output plummeted. He obtained a fairly dismal set of GCSEs and soon dropped out of sixth form to become a NEET (a young person “Not in Education, Employment, or Training”). He did eventually enrol at a college and got an engineering diploma, and is now gainfully employed, but it took him a while to find his feet and arguably, his job prospects and income have been negatively impacted.

So no, I am not an advocate for more grammar schools. However, I can understand why so many parents are desperate for their children to get into them. If I lived near enough to one, it’s quite possible that I would be too. This is why I find myself conflicted on the matter. On the one hand, I can see the negative impact they can have on communities. On the other, I can see that for the lucky few, they offer fantastic opportunities for a great education. In an ideal world, a great education would be within everybody’s grasp but this has yet to be achieved in over a century of public education and frankly, I suspect such a utopia is unlikely to ever be reached. Short of achieving educational nirvana, just what is it realistic to aspire to?

As Heather Fearn rightly points out, there are winners and losers in all the scenarios. We have already seen how socially disadvantaged children lose out from the “secondary modern effect” of having grammar schools in their locality but, in the absence of grammars, there is also another set of losers: those academically gifted children who are held back from achieving their true potential in comprehensives. Despite some notable exceptions, most comprehensives just don’t manage to develop enough of a critical mass to be strongly academic institutions. Whilst I think it is possible to talk about significantly raising standards in comprehensives, I doubt it is realistic to raise it, across a majority of schools in the country, to that high academic standard achieved in some grammars and independent schools. In order to do this, you would need to have high calibre teachers and leaders in all these schools, but there is a finite supply of such people.

Let’s take a look at the remarkable Michaela school, led by Katharine Birbalsingh. It is a non-selective school with a high percentage of children on free school meals, an indicator of social disadvantage. I have not yet had a chance to visit, but by all accounts, the school is a hotbed of academic excellence. It shows what can be achieved, without selection, when the right ethos is in place. When asked if the Michaela system could be replicated in other schools across the country, Ms Birbalsingh has emphatically stated that it could. Here, I would respectfully disagree with her.

There is a lot that can be learned from Michaela school, and I know that many teachers and leaders who have visited it have been inspired to make changes at their own schools. However, I don’t think it’s feasible to envisage a large proliferation of schools achieving Michaela’s standard. In many ways, Michaela is unique. Its leadership has an almost revolutionary zeal and that level of commitment and motivation is rare to find. The school has recruited a great many Oxbridge and Teach First graduates. Let’s put it this way. If you are academically average, you are unlikely to be employed as a teacher at Michaela. The problem is that there are just not enough of these academic A-listers to staff all the schools around the country and thus I would very much doubt that you could get a critical mass of high achieving schools like Michaela. At best, you would get clusters of excellence here and there, but not across the board.

Inevitably then, you will get winners and losers. And wherever there is an excellent school, be it a grammar or other type of school, you will find ambitious middle class parents muscling their way in. So what should we do? For starters, let’s stop trying to approach education through the prism of social mobility. Let’s just try to raise standards for all children, whether they go on to become lawyers or road sweepers. While not all comprehensives can reach the dizzy heights of top grammars, let’s raise the bar so that they don’t lag so far behind. Tackle behaviour, improve literacy, develop a rich curriculum.

At the same time, let’s accept that there is space for a variety of different options to be on offer, whether it’s faith schools, free schools or even grammars. What’s important is that such schools do not dominate an area. So for instance, if you were to have a grammar school in one area, you shouldn’t be able to open another one nearby or even within an x mile radius. Very bright, academic children, should have the opportunity to attend highly academic institutions, whether they are middle class or not (and I don’t think that middle class children are any less worthy). Surely that can be done without blighting the opportunities of other children.

This last week…

The first week of my Easter holiday has flown by much too quickly. I have mostly lazed about at home, watched “Jane the Virgin” on Netflix, enjoyed afternoon siestas and done some gardening. Also, I have an 8-year old to entertain, so we have had a few play dates and budget days out – how does aeroplane spotting at London City airport strike you? In between all of this, I have found time to occasionally dip into my Twitter feed and keep up with all that’s happening in our education bubble.

As far as I can tell, there have been two main strands of conversation: Twitter trolling and the merits/demerits of Labour’s new policy on taxing private schools in order to fund free school meals for all primary school children. Here’s my take on these.

The Trolls

It never ceases to amaze me how disagreements over pedagogy degenerate into ad hominem attacks on the people who dare spout a contrary view. This inability to show respect to people with opposing viewpoints displays a lack of maturity and intellectual reasoning skills. I do agree with Anthony Radice on this.

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This issue of trolling was highlighted in Andrew Old’s blog, together with sound advice on how to tackle the problem. I was also saddened to hear that Michael Fordham, who writes about education with such clarity and wisdom, has also been subject to Twitter abuse lately.

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AdrianFGS, you are now blocked. I will not allow anyone who tweets personal insults on my timeline; I strongly suggest others follow suit and make clear that personal attacks are not to be tolerated in our discourse on EduTwitter.

Jeremy Corbyn’s great idea

Full disclosure here, I am not an objective critic as I would be adversely affected by this. My son has been accepted and will start at an independent school in September. I have been saving up for a few years to afford the fees and well, you can imagine that I’m none too pleased at the prospect of the goal post moving even further. Here’s the thing though. As a family, we already pay our fair share of tax, plus, by taking our son out of state education, we are saving the taxpayer money that would otherwise have been spent on my son’s school place. So here we are, already well out of pocket, but hey, at least it will go to a worthy cause. Oh, hang on a minute. The extra money will subsidise free meals for loads of middle class children. Sounds like a bit of an own goal to me.

Then of course, I am asked what I have against state education. The honest answer: for the most part, it’s not as good as private education. My son is not a social experiment. I want him to have the best possible education and in our case, this means going private. I make no apologies for this. In an ideal world, the best possible education would be available to all but unfortunately, we have not yet reached this utopia.

Interestingly, there was another related thread which touched on this issue. Mr Pink (@positivteacha) posted something to the effect that he hated his university experience because mixing with privately educated students made him feel out of his depth. I hadn’t been aware until now of the difference in attainment between state and privately educated students at university.

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All of which leads me to say. State secondary education (with some honourable exceptions) still has a very long way to go. There is much work still to be done. I hope, in my small way, to contribute to this work when I start teacher training in September.