Change is in the air

I have been following the bitter arguments on Twitter between educational traditionalists and progressives with interest lately. A lot of the anger has come about as a result of the event last weekend held at Michaela school to promote their new book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers”. There was a very memorable moment in the debate where Michaela head, Katharine Birbalsingh, made an impassioned speech about reclaiming authority and discipline in our schools. I won’t paraphrase it too much, best listen to it here.

The speech, which was not everybody’s cup of tea, struck a real chord with me because I am witnessing on a daily basis what happens to a school when respect for teachers is lost and behaviour gets out of hand. It isn’t pretty. Actually, it’s tragic and I feel desperately sorry for the students at my school who are unlikely to get much of an education at the end of their time here. I feel particularly frustrated because the school I work in is new – it opened only 4 years ago. The leadership had a perfect opportunity to start something from scratch and embed the right kind of culture in that first year where there was only one year group to contend with, but that precious opportunity was squandered away. Instead, we have a set of year 10s who behave with impunity because they know they can get away with it, and in turn they set a poor example for all the other year groups.

Our head’s big mantra, as far as I can tell, is grit. Yes he wants the students at his school to do well academically, but more importantly, he wants them to show grit and resilience. A lot of what he says to us on inset days could be lifted straight out of “Educating Ruby”, a book I found incredibly disheartening in its approach to education. The main message, if you have not read it, is that there are some things more important to learn at school than the academic curriculum. It’s alright that the mythical Ruby in the book leaves school without any A-C GCSEs because she has learnt something else more valuable: grit and resilience. Such skills, we are to infer, will allow her to make the most of her lot in life (i.e. she will probably stay poor but she will be a more contented poor).

This kind of message, I believe, stems from a defeatist attitude to education born out of decades of low achievement in schools. So the paradigm gets shifted. Instead of focussing on academic results when it’s frankly clear that these are just not going to improve for a large chunk of the school population, we shift our measures of success to more intangible things that all sound good in theory: creativity, problem solving skills, grit etc…

But what happens when a school like Michaela comes along which unashamedly says the opposite? Poor children can achieve, they can do as well if not better than privately educated children, if only we have the right culture of discipline and high expectations. What happens if, as is becoming increasingly clear, such a school manages to demonstrate that this can actually be done in practice? How will others react to this? Some, like me, are curious to find out more, to see what can be learned from the Michaela experiment.

I don’t have any axe to grind or any record to defend though. I think it may be a lot different for teachers and school leaders who have invested a lot of their time and effort doing the progressive thing and have not been able to show the same degree of success. How difficult must it be for them to see a school doing everything they have been taught to believe is wrong and regressive, actually helping the most disadvantaged children get on in life. This is where the concept of the sunken cost fallacy comes into play. Too much has been invested in a course of action to turn back and change course, even when the evidence is there for all to see. So instead of greeting the new approach with curiosity and interest, far too often the reaction is to denigrate, to accuse, to attack.

I am watching the battle of ideas raging on with great interest. What must it be like for teachers who entered the profession a decade or so ago, when the orthodoxy was all about progressive education (as evidenced in Andrew Old’s recent blog) to be confronted with the complete opposite? Human beings are generally a conservative lot (with a small c). We don’t generally like to be jolted out of our comfort zone. And we certainly don’t like to be told that what we have been doing for the last ten years or so, what we have toiled at with the best of intentions, was actually the wrong thing to do. It’s little surprise that the reaction of many is one of anger.

This brings to mind something that I witnessed when I was a mere slip of a girl during my gap year when I worked at the Handicapped Children’s House in Riyadh. My parents lived there at the time and managed to help me secure a job as a teaching assistant in the Early Childhood Program (ECP), working with 3-5 year old disabled children. I had playgroups and one-to-one sessions where mostly I was told to play ball games to help their motor skills and sing lots of cheesy songs. One month into the job, the American head, a lovely lady named Dr. Ann Gerard, announced her retirement and the appointment of a new head, who was Saudi Arabian and who had recently returned from the USA with two masters in special education. The new head soon started making some changes. She introduced us to the Portage development scale and how we could use it to assess the development of our pupils to set appropriate goals for them. I remember being delighted at the prospect of doing something new and meaningful, something a little bit more directed than ball games and songs. But my colleagues were not so happy.

They wasted no time in showing their hostility to the new regime. I was shocked at the level of antagonism and resentment towards the new head, just because she had the temerity to change the way they had comfortably been doing their work for years. At every opportunity they tried to sabotage what she was doing and they made her life hell, to the point where she resigned from the job two years later (after I had left). Interestingly though, when I caught up with my old colleagues a few years later, they were happily using all the new techniques she had introduced.

I think that was my first real insight into the human condition and for this reason, I have not been all that surprised at the reaction of the progressives to the resurgence of traditional teaching. I have been quite energised by it actually because to me, it shows that it has hit a nerve: change is in the air and the low expectations of progressivism inexorably on their way out.

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