The schools we need (and how to get them)

As well as providing some pretty entertaining viewing Tough Young Teachers also provides a brief snapshot into life in our schools. In last week’s episode one of the participants was reprimanded for not keeping on top of her marking. One of the suggestions for improvement (given by the head teacher) was that she should give out as many ‘Excellent Work’ stickers as possible to ensure that students were getting encouragement. In another scene one of the Teach Firsters was given some bruising feedback after what was quite obviously a pretty unsuccessful lesson. The observer was quick to suggest how this could have been avoided. Instead of attempting to introduce a number of new concepts in quick succession he should have provided the students with a list of sources for them to investigate themselves. That way they could have learnt the concepts at their own pace and also developed their research skills.

I suspect most normal people watching didn’t attach much significance to these events. Personally, however, I couldn’t fail to see in this advice the exact attitude that E D Hirsch denounces in The Schools We Need. I’ve just finished reading the book for the first time and have been struck by the extent to which his polemic against the process of teaching in the US resonates with my own experience of schools in the UK. For those unfamiliar with Hirsch’s arguments, they are probably best summarised in his own words. He concludes that:

We cannot afford any more decades dominated by ideas that promote natural, integrated project-learning over focused instruction leading to well-practiced operational skills in reading and mathematics, and well-stocked mind conversant with individual subject matter like history and biology. We need to reject the ill-founded notions that every child learns naturally at his or her own pace (whatever that means, beyond failure to teach the subject). We must not accept the claim that knowing how to learn (which is an abstract skill that does not even exist) is more important than having a broad foundation of factual knowledge that really does enable further learning.

These and other crucial insights apply just as much to the UK education system today as they did to the US system when Hirsch wrote the book nearly 20 years ago. The claim that maximising independent learning and relentless praise is not the best way to develop student understanding would be met with disbelief by many teachers. The disparaging of ‘mere facts’ and ‘rote-learning’ still pervades the education debate (just look at much of the reaction to changes to the national curriculum) despite the fact that the evidence overwhelmingly supports Hirsch’s claim that basic background knowledge (i.e. ‘mere facts’) is vital both to the creation of new knowledge and to the development of higher-order thinking skills. And what Hirsch calls naturalism – the belief that learning is a natural process which cannot be forced (‘Jimmy just isn’t naturally good at maths’) or rapidly accelerated – remains deeply embedded in the thought-world of our education system.

There are some welcome signs that all this is starting to change. Before I’d even opened The Schools We Need I was pretty familiar with the main lines of argument largely because I’d heard and read quite a lot about them. In the blogosphere these ideas are widely discussed and commonly accepted.  The science on which some of the more concrete claims are based is gaining greater publicity and being more widely investigated by some teachers. Organisations have been set up dedicated to promoting these ideas and some schools are starting to apply elements of the approach that Hirsch advocates.

Despite these positive developments our schools still more closely resemble those that Hirsch criticises than any that he would endorse. What can we do to change this? Transforming arguments and ideas into systematic change is a huge challenge, but there are undoubtedly things that we can and should do.

  1. Ofsted must stop promoting progressive, child-centred pedagogy. Through the relentless criticism of too much teacher-talk and the advocacy of independent learning the schools regulator is playing a decisive role in determining the type of teaching children receive. Recent promises that Ofsted would not favour any particular teaching style do not seem to be backed up by evidence on the ground. Growing concern about the validity and reliability of lesson observations provides good grounds for reconsidering the entire inspection regime, and a central pillar of any new regime should be that to the extent that it does advocate a particular pedagogical approach it must be one that is evidence-based.
  2. Curriculum design is fundamentally important and should be informed by a knowledge-centric approach. The proposed reforms to the national curriculum are undoubtedly a step in the right direction but we need to go even further in specifying exactly what needs to be taught and when. Moving to a more prescriptive curriculum will be fraught with difficulties, not least overcoming the objections of the cynical post-modernists who object to the selection of any specific content as ideological and divisive, but the curriculum is the foundation of teaching in our schools. If we want a greater focus on core knowledge then this need to be reflected in the content of the curriculum.
  3. These ideas need to form a core part of teacher training, including both initial teacher training and CPD. Progressive pedagogy is so firmly entrenched in our schools that changing the curriculum and the inspection regime alone will not be sufficient to dislodge it. Ultimately we need teachers themselves to recognise the value of a common core of background knowledge and to appreciate what the evidence says about the best way to teach it. This is perhaps one reason to be sceptical about the greater shift towards school-based teacher training. We want new teachers to have the time and space to engage with research which is relevant to effective pedagogy so that they can mould their teaching practise accordingly. Chucking them straight into schools to learn on the job increases the likelihood that they become institutionalised – looking around them they see an emphasis on discovery learning and minimal teacher-talk which they then copy unquestioningly.

None of the above are quick fixes. Each requires a concerted effort from practitioners and policy-makers which is difficult to envisage in the near future. Returning to Tough Young Teachers, it is precisely because most people don’t flinch at the absurdities of progressive pedagogy that it retains its dominant position. There is something intuitively appealing about the teaching of broad skills and of children finding things out for themselves. Hirsch and others have tried to explain its origins in the romanticism of Rousseau and the progressive-hotbed of Teachers College but in many ways this is the weakest part of their analysis. Origins do not explain resilience. In the end it seems that there is something in our collective culture – perhaps our commitment to autonomy or liberal individualism – that primes us to continue to accept the progressive approach. If we are to get the schools we need, we first need to find a way of overcoming this prejudice.

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4 Responses to The schools we need (and how to get them)

  1. “Moving to a more prescriptive curriculum will be fraught with difficulties, not least overcoming the objections of the cynical post-modernists who object to the selection of any specific content as ideological and divisive, but the curriculum is the foundation of teaching in our schools.”

    Oh heck that’s me!

    But one point; you say that and then you say

    “In the end it seems that there is something in our collective culture – perhaps our commitment to autonomy or liberal individualism – that primes us to continue to accept the progressive approach.”

    Can you have it both ways?

    • Chris Hall says:

      I think I can have it both ways! I’m not sure there is necessarily any contradiction between criticising those who object to the inclusion of lots of content in the curriculum on largely post-modern grounds and observing that there is something in the progressive model that resonates with some of our most deeply held beliefs. The common theme underlying both points is that what constitutes effective pedagogy is largely an empirical question and that, within reason, the answer should be untainted by our ideological convictions.

  2. solocontrotutti says:

    “I think I can have it both ways! I’m not sure there is necessarily any contradiction between criticising those who object to the inclusion of lots of content in the curriculum on largely post-modern grounds and observing that there is something in the progressive model that resonates with some of our most deeply held beliefs.”

    Possibly so but it could also be that post modernists have better arguments and that the problem with schools is not progressive teaching methods but actually the fact that they are poorly understood and badly misused.

    “The common theme underlying both points is that what constitutes effective pedagogy is largely an empirical question and that, within reason, the answer should be untainted by our ideological convictions.”

    Is not the view that effective pedagogy “is largely an empirical question”, actually an ideological conviction?

    Anyway interesting article certainly made me think.

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