Is traditional teaching oppressive?


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.

2 thoughts on “Is traditional teaching oppressive?”

  1. I’m not entirely convinced by your cutlery analogy. My daughter has benefitted from time and lots of modelling but no explicit instruction in this area but can now use a knife and fork passingly well (she is 2). The fact that explicit instruction works does not mean that non-explicit does not work.

    In another post (can’t find it), you mention that when your class got a new teacher, everyone’s grades went up but your went down, from which you conclude that the instruction style (not explicit) was bad. If it was such a poor choice, why did everyone else gain? Have you considered whether there were any other factors at play?

    1. Thank you for your comment. Non-explicit instruction can work in some cases but in my view, it is more effective and efficient to explain and model.
      As for your second comment, I agree there does appear to be an inconsistency. I shall have to, some day, revisit that blog post.

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