A history and philosophy of education

Inspired by this tweet from Richard Tutt, I added Daniel Buck’s What is wrong with our schools? to my “to be read” list – and it did not disappoint. For good measure, I gave one of my absolute favourite books, Rob Peal’s Progressively Worse a re-read.

These books are a wonderful hand-in-hand read. Buck’s focus is on the philosophical background to education: why do we believe children should learn in one way or another? What are our underlying assumptions behind childhood? What do we think education is for? Peal’s is more historical: what has happened in the sixty years to have brought education where it is now? What were the key historic milestones which had an impact on our classrooms? What were the policies which created the classrooms we had in recent years, and those we have now?

One of my favourite things about Buck’s book is the way he makes reference to his own classroom throughout. Firstly, there is nothing quite like an education book written by someone who is practising what they preach. All the theory in the world won’t convince teachers in the way an actual classroom teacher will convince teachers. Secondly, education is all about the children, and that’s wildly easy to forget when we want to argue about ideas, so Buck keeps reminding us of the people of most importance.

Because the ideas Buck outlines, the history of neo-traditionalism, as the philosophy is increasingly called, have resulted in undeniable changes in the attitudes and learning of his charges. I remember vividly in my early days in the classroom, a fully paid up member of the progressive movement, a lovely kind well-behaved child sitting with me at parents evening and managing to say, in the politest way possible, “I don’t feel like I’m… Learning anything in your class.” It was a blow I brushed off with the help of a little underlying philosophical bias: “oh but that’s not the point of English! It’s about discovering what you think about these books.”

In contrast, I recall a lesson observation as part of an interview process where I gave the children some challenging text to read, led them through it, and got them to do some writing. These wonderful fourteen-year-olds did everything I asked and engaged beautifully, and when I thanked them for their attention at the end they clapped. Truly, the proudest moment of any interview I have ever done. Being led down the corridor by one of them with a school governor to the holding pen, the young man said: “we’ve never had a lesson like that before.”

I did not get the job.

Philosophy is a hard master. It blinds us to our realities. As Buck puts it: “the problem with our schools is ideological, not systemic.”

So what is this neo-traditionalist ideology? I suspect it’s not quite defined yet, but I adored Buck’s definition: “If traditionalism teaches content and progressive education teaches students, then neo-traditionalism teaches content to the student.” Neo-traditionalist teaching, the kind I love to see and do, is highly engaging and focused on moving children forward. Assessment for learning is key: do they understand what I just taught them? How about now? What about this? Ok – we need to go back and try that again. It builds children’s memories this way too: do you remember what we did last lesson? How about last term? Let’s not forget last year!

Buck ranges not only through teaching practice but also curriculum theory. He articulates brilliantly the neo-traditionalist approach: venerate the greats, teach them because they build cultural capital; but also look at the full canon, the canon which includes different, diverse voices, because great literature is defined by time, and there were voices some time ago just as brilliant as their white, male counterparts, who we must celebrate and teach today:

Perhaps it’s time we let go of our unquestioned allegiance to Shakespeare’s excellence but at least replace him with something of equal quality. Similarly, we should disavow vague goals like “using race to interrogate society”—which suffers the same flaws as “critical thinking”—and instead center robust elements of America’s history of race relations.

If we want to improve our schools’ discussions of race and racism in the US then we should define specific things worth knowing, like the Tulsa race massacre, the life of Malcolm X, or Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk.

… Though, as a British English teacher, my biases are not quite ready to admit there is any writer more excellent than Shakespeare.

On habits, Buck helps us to see why structure liberates:

Mere freedom from is not empowering. Consider freedom as it relates to music. A teacher could have a child sit at their piano and provide no directives or constraints, asking the child to play whatever comes to mind. The student may plunk away at a few notes but little would come of it. Conversely, with a schedule and exercises to practice scales, that student will eventually be able to play whatever their heart desires, be it Chopin’s nocturnes, Beethoven’s concertos, improvisation over bebop chord changes, or the melodies in their own mind. Rousseau would see the child ‘free from prejudices and free from habits.’ In reality, habits and constraints facilitate more robust freedom.

It is all too easy to dismiss structure and habit forming from our ivory towers of fully formed and educated adults, many of whom have been blessed with the privilege of an upbringing that instilled and taught self-discipline and how to create structure around us. Children absolutely deserve to develop these habits, which will lead to greater freedom and choice.

On behaviour management in schools, Buck ranges over the different philosophical approaches, but again grounds his theory in reality. He draws on the greatest practices of American Charter schools, such as Success Academies, to show that “when we remove adult authority as expressed through consequences, we leave a vacuum behind. Nature hates a vacuum… the strongest students fill the vacuum. This is the result: chaos, anarchy, the strong overpowering the weak.”

Whatever your stance, whatever your educational philosophy, this intelligent book gives the theory behind the instinct, and, crucially, grounds it in the children we serve and the classrooms we work in.


2 thoughts on “A history and philosophy of education

  1. Hello Jo,

    Thank you so much for this blog in general but especially the anecdote about the job interview that didn’t come off despite the lesson clearly being a good one.

    It struck a true chord, having just had a near identical experience down here in sunny Brighton, where finding a primary school which shares my ideology is not easy. “Your lesson was brilliant but we’re not sure that you’re the right fit for our way of doing things.”

    So at the end of a dispiriting week – thank you for making me appreciate that even the finest of teachers have not always been recognised or successful.

    I’ve always loved your blogs and your annual book list has driven my Amazon purchases for some time – thanks for everything.

    Best wishes

    Sarah Axtell
    Sent from my iPhone


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