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.

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Top reads of 2020

2020: the year of reading. Was there anything else to do? As such, it has taken an extraordinarily long time for me to whittle my long-list of 34 favourites down to this select few. I’ll start with the education favourites, and move on to fiction (my true love).

Education favourites

E.D. Hirsch: How to Educate a Citizen

I have long loved Hirsch, but find his earlier works a challenge to read. With each new work, I find his writing more and more lucid. This short work excoriates progressivism and provides a clear path to a coherent, enlightened curriculum that works for all children – but especially those for whom education to often does not work.

Eva Moskowitz: The education of Eva Moskowitz: a memoir

I am a big fan, and still keep Pondiscio’s account of Moscowitz’ school chain the Success Academies on my desk in work, filled to bursting with post-it notes. I was surprised at how much of an insight this gave me into Moscowitz’s schools, and how often I have quoted this to colleagues after reading it. It’s much more than a memoir – it’s a love letter to transformative education.

Tom Bennett: Running the Room

The other book I cannot stop quoting is Tom Bennett’s latest offering. I bought this because everyone said it was incredible, and everyone was absolutely correct. I’m not sure how he manages it, but Bennett makes this a relevant read for both practitioners at the very start of their career and those leading the behavior and culture of schools.

Fiction

Bernadine Evaristo: Girl, Woman, Other

This is genuinely one of the most moving books I have ever read. Having a cast of so very many characters shouldn’t work – I’ve got lost in simpler stories with fewer characters – but in Evaristo’s hands it all weaves together in a tapestry of life and all its hurts and joys.

Tessa Hadley: Late in the day

This story of close friendships and their response to a shared grief felt so tangible I miss the characters even now, seven months after reading it.

Claudia Rankine: Citizen

A searing but beautiful prose poem exploring black experience. Both horrifying and edifying. A masterpiece.

Jenny Offill: Dept. of Speculation

A wonderful novel of marriage, motherhood, art disintegration and coming together. Manages to be brilliantly artful and sincere simultaneously.

Ann Patchett: The Dutch House

It took me about 75 pages to fully enter the world of this book, but once I did I fully appreciated why some critics reckon this to be Patchett’s master work. Again, I miss these characters desperately.

Curtis Sittenfeld: You think it, I’ll say it

I read American Wife last year and adored it. I’ve not loved everything by Sittenfeld, but these short stories are brilliant – in only a few pages, you become completely invested.

Rupi Kaur: Milk and Honey

I cannot believe it has taken me so long to read Rupi Kaur. I read these poems in one sitting, and then again the next evening. And again. There is so much life in so few words.

Anna Wiener: Uncanny Valley

Ok, I know this isn’t fiction, but it’s not education either so it can go here. A rare non-fiction read that has stayed with me, providing an insight into Silicon Valley and its working practices. It made me laugh a lot.

Remote learning: lessons learned

My central aim today is to avoid using the word “unprecedented”. It is clear teachers find themselves in… Unusual circumstances. None of us signed up to a career spent sitting at a desk all day and communicating by email and phone. My overriding feeling right now is complete confusion as to why anyone would choose this kind of sedentary life, and I, along with many others, am very much looking forward to being physically present in a school again, ideally with some children and colleagues at a safe and social distance.

Much as I would like to pretend otherwise, distance learning looks to be with us for the long term – most educators consider that a significant number of children will have to stay at home with shielding relatives, as well as potentially having two weeks off school should they or a classmate show symptoms – at least deep into the next academic year. I’ve been excited to get to be a part of Oak National Academy, the UK’s online school, on its curriculum team, to learn more about best practice in this brave new world of remote learning, and I’d like to share some lessons learned along the way.

  1. “Assessment for learning” (AfL) looks very different

Even where schools are providing online lessons for their own children, there are some strong arguments for these being pre-recorded rather than live – safeguarding concerns abound with live lessons along with childcare and related demands on teachers’ time making it tough to run lessons according to a set timetable.

Even in live teaching, traditional methods of AfL aren’t foolproof: it’s hard to raise your hand when you’re stuck in a classroom; harder still to do the waving required to make this visible across the internet in front of your peers. It’s easy to read faces in a classroom or hear that low mutter of dissent or see heads shaking when something isn’t clear; again, this is much harder with video conferencing.

Moreover, when students look at a screen, any screen, the default position is to be passive, and breaking the association is a challenge. Students could easily sit through hours of online learning and learn nothing, just as many teachers will have experienced lengthy online meetings they can’t quite recall at this point, along with the multiple TV box sets that have faded into the mists of time.

Online learning must repeatedly fight this passivity. At Oak, teachers have amassed a range of strategies to get children to do something with what they are learning. In primary, this is displayed most cutely through children shouting the answer at the screen.

In secondary, it seems less clear that adolescents would be willing to do this. All Oak teachers use “pause points”: following every new piece of information, a check for understanding – a quick “everyone writes” or multiple choice question to check they have understood.

The lesson is: any time you’d check for understanding with a class, make it a quick task online.

  1. Less is more

The amazing Josie Mingay running form-time reading aside, it is challenging to get children reading a lot when they’re not in the classroom. Oak runs on the assumption that many children access lessons through a mobile phone, and they need to be as accessible as possible for all learners. In the flow of a lesson, it is certainly a challenge to student attention and to teacher delivery to read swathes of text. That is why, though it kills the English teacher in me, I’d advise that less is more when delivering online lessons. Having a large amount of text on slides is a sure fire way to alienate some children. Keep slides clean and keep wording minimal.

In an ideal world, every child would have their own laptop or tablet device from which online learning would be easily accessible. It seems likely that the funding and logistics of this mean it’s not a quick and easy answer. Our best bet – the one that is fastest as well – is to make use of the fact that almost every child will have a mobile phone. With this in mind, use slides judiciously to chunk new knowledge and present it cleanly and clearly, and deliver extended reading separately to new learning to ensure maximum pupil access to lessons.

  1. Digital simplicity

Technology offers limitless solutions to the problem of educating children remotely, but that doesn’t mean we have to take advantage of all of them. The more complicated we make our lessons, the more hurdles we place in front of our children. Oak’s Head of History, Ben Arscott, described this approach recently saying: “every click is an opportunity for a kid to check out of a lesson.” Adding login details is another hurdle that could cause confusion and prevent access. Whatever you do, make it as easy as possible to access, removing every barrier that might prevent children engaging with the learning.

  1. Be “pantomime”

One of my favourite pieces of advice on teaching was given to me by Barry Smith, who describes the process by which a teacher becomes larger than life, firing up the pupils through sheer force of personality, as “be pantomime”. This is good advice in the classroom, though it doesn’t work for everyone – we must also ensure we remain true to our teacher personas, as children see right through inauthenticity. 

Normally I’m a fan of clear and simple delivery and no fan of gimmicks, but while we are delivering lessons on the very device kids are most often distracted by, a little gimmick goes a long way. I find the entirety of Oak’s primary team enchanting, but one of my favourite moments was watching the year 6 teacher add some jazz to a spelling test with his quizmaster jacket (see minutes 1:45 to 2:30 for the transformation).

 

Oak National Academy is completely free to all students and teachers and exists to support teachers focus on the things a tech platform cannot do: the pastoral support of pupils. When professionals return to school, it’s a great resource to allow teachers to plan for the children in front of them, while being sure that the ones at home have something of quality to learn with. We’re improving all the time, and looking for new ways to integrate with existing systems so teachers can monitor the work their students are completing on Oak. With that in mind, do leave any feedback on how we could make the platform most helpful for teachers in the comments of this post.

Finally, some of Oak’s team of superstar teachers will be leading a Research Ed Home talk on 2nd June at 11am to share their own lessons learned, so tune in then to find out more.