Stillness – what’s wrong with chapel?

One of the mini-essays I’m planning is a profile on Anthony Seldon. Is he our generation’s Thomas Arnold? One thing is for certain: there is no man in independent education today who is better at dominating the headlines.

Yesterday, he was promoting his Conference on Mindfulness by commenting on stillness in schools:

He said that the decline of old fashioned religious assemblies had robbed many pupils of the ability to “reflect during the school day” just as large numbers of children faced unprecedented levels of stress.

Not a bad idea in theory, but it left me thinking: what was wrong with chapel?

The Independent Curriculum

I have been following the Independent Curriculum (or, to give it its full title, the “IC Programmes for Learning”) for a number of years now. Its parent company, Galore Park, have done prep schools a good service by publishing traditional, knowledge-rich text books (including the 1905 Classic Our Island Story) written by excellent independent school teachers like Theo Zinn. Hats off to them.

All of which makes their sponsorship of the Independent Curriculum the more surprising. The IC pays lip-service to knowledge (it “introduces Knowledge Strands alongside cross-curricular Learning Skills to ensure your pupils have the canon of knowledge required from a rigorous, academic education”) but its essence repudiates traditional knowledge-based education at every turn.

The principles outlined in its brochure (available here) are characteristically, if not deliberately, anti-liberal education. You can read it for yourself, but here are just a few highlights:

1) The false dichotomy between knowledge and skills.

“For education to be relevant and effective for the future, it demands a curriculum which not only imparts knowledge but affords learners the opportunity to discover it for themselves, to scrutinise it, to apply it within creative, problem-solving situations and then debate, discuss and communicate it to others.”

2) The invocation of alarmist, irrelevant scenarios to justify educational change.

“But the world is changing – and fast. The perceived wisdom of past generations is no longer sufficient. The pace of technological advancement, the globalised marketplace in which we must all now compete, the depletion of the world’s natural resources, and the everpresent [sic] threats from global warming call for skills beyond literacy, numeracy and knowledge retention. We need innovative, intellectually curious, revolutionary thinkers leaving school with their creativity and courage still intact.”

If the educational philosophy is fluffy, perhaps the content of the curriculums is more rigorous? Alas not.

For evidence, have a read of their suggested Year 4 Curriculum. It is structured so that the learning (Discovering) is in the column to the left and the associated skills (Applying and Communicating) are in the middle and right hand column. Little indication is given to recommended timings on each section so let us suppose that we divide the columns equally. At the most, then, pupils are spending only ½ of their time actually learning the story of the past; the other two thirds are spent doing activities like “imagine a day at a Roman School” or “put together a PowerPoint slide on a typical Roman school day.” This is typical “project-based learning”: a well-meaning suggestion that is rarely an effective use of time because pupils spend their time thinking more about PowerPoint design than they do about Rome and because pupils are left making a project with very shallow knowledge. When you realise that many of the suggestions in the Discovery section are covert projects (“Research what a Roman home would look like”), one is left with the impression that if this curriculum was implemented, very little history would end up being committed to memory each year.

The brain is rarely riper than in Year 4 for soaking up oodles of History knowledge: a typical Temple Grove pupil in the middle of the nineteenth century was reading Thomas Carlyle by the end of Year 5. It is not out of cruelty that liberal educators would bid the child to put down his Pritt Stick; there are plenty of other times in a child’s day – e.g. at home or in Design and Art class – when they would actively encourage it. Liberal educators asset knowledge instead of projects because the reverse leads to the waste a 9 year old’s precious History lessons with thoughts and activities not related to the learning of History.

Mini-Essay: The Abolition of Man

It is a frequent lament of liberal education enthusiasts in this country that they must so often turn to the United States for inspiration. So it was that, via the US education think-tank the ISI, I first came across C S Lewis’ slim, digestible book on education, The Abolition of Man. Few books have had such a profound effect on me, especially on my views of education. It can be read for free here, and I much recommend this accompanying lecture (number 118 on the list, I believe) by the entertaining and rather mellifluous Dr. Richard Gamble.The book can be read in one sitting, and I would hate to spoil the experience for the uninitiated, so I shall limit my commentary to just one point – on sentiment in education.C S Lewis’ writing is a wonderful tonic to modern conceptions of sentiment, which leave most commentators divided between automatons and sentimentalists. Today, it seems, one is either in favour of regimentation, efficiency and accountability (see most of McKinsey’s reports on education systems, or politicians’ regular praise for the education systems of Korea and Singapore), or else one would rather schools resemble Rousseauian playgrounds, exalting creativity and individual expression above all else.

C S Lewis would be appalled by both visions, though it was his fears about the former – the technocraticisation of English schools; the mechanization of their products – that led him to write the book. In my favourite line, he writes: “The job of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts.”

What did he mean by deserts? He worried that children were being educated in a way that robbed them of their souls – though atheists may prefer the word spirit. He illustrates his point with several examples, most from a popular elementary textbook of the time. I’ll repeat just one – on horses. In the textbook, the writer has found “a silly bit of writing on horses, where these animals are praised as the ‘willing servants’ of the early colonists in Australia”. The writer “debunks” this piece of writing and explains that horses were not interested in colonial expansion.

That C S Lewis picks out this example is a testament to his value as a writer on education, and to what we’ve lost now that his like are not around. Most parents or teachers would skim over this tiny detail as incidental, a bit trivial, not worth worrying about. Not Lewis, who writes:

“I find that the same operation, under the same general anaesthetic, is being carried out. Orbilius [his name for the writer] chooses for ‘debunking’ a silly bit of writing on horses…Of Ruksh and Sleipnir and the weeping horses of Achilles and the war-horse in the Book of Job—nay even of Brer Rabbit and of Peter Rabbit—of man’s prehistoric piety to ‘our brother the ox’—of all that this semi-anthropomorphic treatment of beasts has meant in human history and of the literature where it finds noble or piquant expression—he has not a word to say. Even of the problems of animal psychology as they exist for science he says nothing. He contents himself with explaining that horses are not, secundum litteram, interested in colonial expansion. This piece of information is really all that his pupils get from him. Why the composition before them is bad, when others that lie open to the same charge are good, they do not hear. Much less do they learn of the two classes of men who are, respectively, above and below the danger of such writing—the man who really knows horses and really loves them, not with anthropomorphic illusions, but with ordinate love, and the irredeemable urban blockhead to whom a horse is merely an old-fashioned means of transport. Some pleasure in their own ponies and dogs they will have lost; some incentive to cruelty or neglect they will have received; some pleasure in their own knowingness will have entered their minds. That is their day’s lesson in English, though of English they have learned nothing. Another little portion of the human heritage has been quietly taken from them before they were old enough to understand.”

Not just the missed opportunity to leave a child uplifted, but the actual reduction in scope and spirit that a lesson like this might cause, is tragically revealed. Elsewhere in the book, Lewis repeats the damaging consequences: “The authors themselves, I suspect, hardly know what they are doing to the boy, and he cannot know what is being done to him…It is not a theory they put into his mind, but an assumption, which ten years hence, its origin forgotten and its presence unconscious, will condition him to take one side in a controversy which he has never recognised as a controversy at all.” That the capacity for worthy, “ordinate” sentiment is what it means to be human is why C S Lewis chooses such a fearsome title: by robbing children of this capacity, we are abolishing the species.

A very good friend, who teaches English at a top London independent school, tells me that C S Lewis’ fear is well-placed with regard to many of the colleagues he has worked with. One telling observation was the number of his colleagues – clever, professional, sometimes brilliant, well-meaning men and women – who would disparage as childish or needless their students’ tendency to imagine characters’ lives beyond the pages of a novel. History departments do the same damage to their students’ historical imaginations when they refuse to be drawn into class discussions on counterfactual history. As Lewis says, the result is that “we make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise.”

There is nothing about the sentimental approach encouraged by Lewis that means that the education has to lack rigour – so often the case with modern attempts to prioritise the sentimental. The English public schools used to be purposeful standard-bearers for a middle way, managing to be at once academically rigorous and encouraging of “ordinate” sentiment, but I for one have fears that this is now under threat. It is interesting to note that C S Lewis, like Tolkein, T S Eliot and other writers who left school before WWII, were the last generation to have had a rigorous classical education. Anyway, the book has much more to it than what I’ve discussed above, and I heartily recommend it.

Mindfulness – gathering momentum

I have been meaning to research Mindfulness in more detail this year. Like “Neuro-linguistic Programming” (NLP), the word has a rather synthetic quality – but I shall endeavour to read more before commenting. 

All I can say for now is that it is gathering momentum in many UK boarding schools. See this letter published in The Guardian yesterday (which cites this fuller piece):

While mindfulness gains popularity and we hear of its increasing use in schools, I want to bring your attention to the long held practice of Quakers, where we gather in silence to calm the mind and focus the attention. While other schools start bringing this mindful practice in to their extended curriculum, Sidcot School in Somerset celebrates the fact that they have provided breathing space for staff and students for over 300 years.
Jacqueline Bagnall
Director, Centre for peace and global studies, Sidcot School

The letter led to another discovery: Sidcot School have a Centre for Peace and Global Studies!

Mini-Essay: What is Liberal Education?

One cannot be a modern “educationalist” without a pithy defence of what education is and what (or who) it is for. Definitions for the purpose of education are to be heard everywhere, and are often loaded with personal or political bias. Someone new to the topic – told at every turn that education is one of the most important features of modern life – can be forgiven if he is left scratching his head, or if he is attracted by the meretricious glow of trendy definitions (or manifestos, as they increasingly seem to be called) currently doing the rounds.I have found it helpful to look backwards at how education has been defined in the past. It is a great comfort to do so, for although details and methods are debated, the central purpose of education seems to have been universally understood since it was begun in Athens in the 5th Century BC. The phrase “liberal education” – and this site – takes its inspiration from this old common understanding of what education is for. That this definition should be supplanted by something fit for the 21st Century is a case that has been repeatedly made; I would ask which developments have made the definition below no longer fit for purpose.The essay to read is Anthony O’Hear’s Introduction in his The School of Freedom, from which this brief, and personal, summary draws its inspiration.Firstly, how is Liberal Education liberal? In two principal ways:1. Its purpose and scope is broad.

 

The goal of liberal education is…to produce educated persons. Qualifications may be more or less required depending on the historical circumstances, but the chief measure of a liberal education is a frank look at the end product: is this person educated, or is he not? How do we test this? Principally, by how much he knows. This is where that glorious – but much too debated – phrase from Matthew Arnold comes in: that children should be fed a diet of “the best that has been thought and said.” The point is that the knowledge selected for the child to be taught should not be dictated by how useful it will be for a particular job, but for its own inherent quality. This means: the best novels; the most ground-breaking scientific breakthroughs; the great events in history. I disagree with a few points of Martin Stephen’s essay The Strange Death of Liberal Education, but he does use this attractive phrase. A liberal education, because it is concerned with more than training for a particular job “has time to gather flowers by the wayside.”

2. Its ambition is to liberate.

The more specific an education, the more trapped are its graduates. The payoff for the rigours of a liberal education is intellectual liberation. A diet of “the best that has been thought and said”, if taught in the right way, equips children with the mental armoury needed to be truly autonomous, protected in adult life from the temptations of sophistic hucksters or commercialist knaves. It was an education designed, in the words of the 15th Century writer Vergerio, to be “worthy of a free man.”

I shall leave to a future essay the central paradox of liberal education. To my mind, it is the reason that its name is so often taken in vain. Briefly, it is this: in order to achieve liberal education’s highly ambitious ends, teachers and parents have to use means, especially in the early years, which will feel illiberal. Memorisation; grammar tables; rote learning; high standards rigorously upheld. As Anthony O’Hear very eloquently puts it, “personal freedom requires an internal locus of control.” Supporters of liberal education have a low estimation of a child’s ability to reason. As Aristotle says in his Ethics, “no one would choose to live with the intellect of a child throughout his life.” Again, this is put very well from Professor O’Hear: “it is the responsibility of parents to exercise judgment on behalf of their growing children, and the most generous choice is to train the child’s own reason in anticipation of his or her necessary freedom in majority.” It is in these coercive areas – a recommended canon of knowledge, rigorously taught – that the Liberal Education tradition runs counter to some of the orthodoxies of modern permissive parenting. The payoff is worth it though. Anthony O’Hear again: “by aiming at such uniformity schools produce all the diversity of freedom…No pedagogy has ever shown more faith in its charges; no generation has ceded so much power to their successors.”

Liberal education is defined in essence above. It has two interesting lesser priorities, which I shall touch on very briefly here. The first is that it has an aesthetic element to it. Martin Stephen says that “A liberal education seeks to inculcate an awareness not just of why a thing works, but that it can be beautiful in its working”, and Professor O’Hear agrees: the ideal product has “…an educated sensibility in matters of value and the aesthetic.” The last point is that it includes quiet political ambitions too. Students who have been truly liberally educated want to engage with the world politically. “Reason,” as O’Hear says, “will call its pupils to action.” I shall be discussing the non-intellectual character elements of liberal education in another essay.

As a last point, it is worth answering the question of who, as opposed to what, liberal education is for. After its coercive elements, the next biggest problem for liberal education in this century is the whiff of elitism that accompanies it. Of course, it was precisely this elitism that made it attractive in the past. In more ambitious ages, people of all backgrounds thronged to the great books and ideas precisely because they basked in glory. This should be the rejoinder in the present age: when previous generations from all backgrounds took such succour from liberal education, why is it modern young people from poor backgrounds who are denied it? It is, after all, the unprivileged who have more use for intellectual autonomy than the privileged. The book to read on the topic is Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. In it, he charts the reading habits of the British working class over hundreds of years. The book teems with fascinating portraits: Catherine Cookson’s biography is famous; my favourite are those of the Midland weavers who had copies of Great Books propped up on their frames as they worked. As O’Hear points out, the initial aims of Liberal Education were to extend aristocratic Athenian culture to all Athenian citizens; this ambition needs to be urgently re-stated.

Homeschooling

This is a piece I wrote for the Axis Educational Trust:

A few weeks ago, I had the terrifying experience of appearing on Newsnight to talk about the government’s proposed changes to the A level system. In the “green room” (which is orange, and contains posters of previous Newsnight guests such as Simon Cowell), I had the chance to talk to Labour MP Barry Sheerman about homeschooling. It was a fascinating insight into how critics of homeschooling view its purposes.

Mr. Sheerman, who was Chair of the House of Common Education and Skills select committee from 2001 – 2007, was concerned that parents were using homeschooling as an opportunity to avoid educating them. He is not alone: the most common objections to homeschooling are those that claim that mainstream school helps to protect children from religiously over-zealous or physically abusive parents. Mr. Sheerman dismissed as fanciful my suggestion that educating one’s children is a natural inclination – and that parents who choose homeschooling have done so because they rate it as more effective than other available forms of schooling.

If that is the case, then today’s UK parents are somewhat exceptional. According to research by the historian Edwin G West, parents in the nineteenth century (before the advent of state schooling) were not just naturally inclined to educate their children; they were willing to pay for it too:

The major nineteenth century legislation, of course, came in 1870 when the Forster Act introduced government (public) schools for the first time.  Yet by 1869 most people in England and Wales were literate, most children were receiving schooling and most parents, working class included, were paying fees for it (West, 1970).

This historical evidence is supported by much of the contemporary evidence coming out of developing countries such as India. In these countries – again – the majority of poor parents are willing to pay for low-cost private schools for their children – in spite of, in many cases, the availability of government schooling.

Mr. Sheerman’s objection to homeschooling therefore poses an interesting question. If 21st century UK parents are not naturally inclined to educate their children – unlike their forebears, and unlike parents in developing countries – why is this? If MPs are arguing that without state provision, parents would not educate their children, is it not fair to conclude that 130 years of state-provided schooling has turned a natural parental urge into an un-cherished entitlement?

Michael Gove in 5 minutes

I was asked by a friend to give him a quick summary of Michael Gove’s policies. Here it is:

Free Schools – most important – and other systemic changes

  • Gove has made it possible for any primary or secondary school to become an academy. There has been HUGE take up, despite what the unions were warning. Academy status means:
    • Freedom from the Local Education Authority in financing – usually the LEA keeps 10% of the school’s budget to spend how it wants; academies keep 100% of funds.
    • More freedom from the LEA over staffing: hours, holidays, pensions, salaries.
    • No more freedom re: admissions (although academies tend to be more imaginative: e.g. West London Free School has quite a rare lottery system for 25% of its admissions – see point 15)
  • Pupil premium: more disadvantaged children get more state money, so teachers get paid more for teaching them.

Curriculum

  • Gove believes that most children are capable of an academic education based on a slimmed-down, core curriculum.
    • His English Baccalaureate (EBacc) ranks schools on how many A* – C they have in English, Maths, 1 Language, History/Geography, 2 Sciences. And it’s working!
    • This is a noticeable departure from previous, more progressive, educational thinking that stressed ‘skills’ as being on a par, or more important, than ‘knowledge’.
  • Return to synthetic phonics taught for children learning how to read. (Ruth Miskin appointed as reading tsar)

In the classroom

Other points

Criticism

Three policies on which he has received most flak: cancelling of Building Schools for the Future; scrapping Educational Maintenance Allowance; raising tuition fees.

Sir Ken Robinson – Do Schools Kill Creativity?

As soon as a friend or acquaintance becomes interested in education, it is not long before they send me Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk: Do Schools Kill Creativity? Accompanied with subject-lines like ‘Been kept up all night by this…’ or ‘SO TRUE!!’.

Once a fellow believer, my short time in education has convinced me of the utter falsehood of his position, and the troubles that result from this sort of thinking. As the talk is representative of much progressive thinking on education, I thought it would be helpful to point out what I believe to be the three most glaring errors:

1. The ‘Unpredictability’ Argument

KR:

“If you think of it, children starting school this year will be retiring in 2065. Nobody has a clue…what the world will look like in five years’ time. And yet we’re meant to be educating them for it. So the unpredictability, I think, is extraordinary.”

This statement is not so much wrong; it has simply been true of education forever. It was as true in 1911, in regard to 1965, as it is true today. It reveals a common mistaken belief that the pace of technological change is now so fast that knowledge is out-of-date almost as soon as it has been learned. It’s a popular stick with which to bash academic education – with such an uncertain future, why learn Latin etc?

It is the assumptions, rather than the point itself, that are troubling. Instead of boring, outdated knowledge, they argue, we should teach students ‘dispositions’,  ‘habits of mind’, and ‘aptitudes’ that will help them in the future. What are these dispositions? Dubious abstract nouns – creativity, innovativeness, team-work, problem-solving – that are as hard to define as they are to teach.

2. Anti-academia

KR:

“At the top are mathematics and languages, then the humanities, and the bottom are the arts. There isn’t an education system on the planet that teaches dance every day to children the way we teach them mathematics. Why? Why not? I think this is rather important. I think math is very important, but so is dance.”

You can’t be a respected educational progressive without beating up on Maths. Guy Claxton devoted a whole chapter to it. A moment’s thought should reveal the strangeness of this line of argument. There are many competing definitions for the ‘purpose of education’ (to transfer knowledge from one generation to the next; to help increase GNP; to have an educated democratic citizenry; to alleviate social inequality – to name a few). None would allow for Dance to have equal-footing with Maths.

But that is to miss the point. Because like most arguments put forward by education progressives, they are fighting a battle that they have already won. There is dance in schools – to the exclusion of academic education. And at the same time: there is less Maths. We have plummeted in the PISA league tables in Maths. And frankly who’s surprised when Maths, as conceived by the National Curriculum, is defined like this: “mathematics provides opportunities to promote spiritual development, through helping pupils obtain an insight into the infinite, and through explaining the underlying mathematical  principles behind some of the beautiful natural forms and patterns in the world around us.”

3. Educational Romanticism about Talent

KR:

“All kids have tremendous talents, and we squander them…ruthlessly.”

The first half of this statement is Robinson as the father in The Talented Mr. Ripley: “every man must have a talent, Mr. Ripley. What’s yours?” Except that: it’s not true. Most teachers you speak to will admit it – there are some children who do not have tremendous talents. The problem with the current system is not a pessimism about the potential of children, but the reverse: a crazed optimism, an “Educational Romanticism” in Charles Murray’s words, that refuses to discern between the varying abilities of children.

As a result, those who do have tremendous talents are not allowed – whether it is through grammar schools or other selective means – to realize that talent; and those who have less academic talent are not given opportunities to learn the sorts of valuable skills at secondary schools that will enable them to lead valued lives.

James Paul Gee

I recently came across James Paul Gee through David Smith. He is exactly what I was looking for: an eloquent champion of the beneficial role of computer games in learning.

You can see him in two great talks here and here. Wikipedia entry here.

Three points that resonated:

  • “School is all manual and no game.” A Professor of linguistics before becoming interested in gaming, JPG argues for the existence of “situated meaning”. Anything we read, he says, makes much more sense if we can relate it to an experience, image, idea, action or argument we’ve already had. (His comparison is with computer game manuals – they only become useful after you’ve played the game for a bit). Most children do not connect with textbooks not because they can’t make sense of the phonics [aside: I had the enriching pleasure to see Margaret Snowling talk about phonics last week] but because the books’ specialist language doesn’t connect with anything out of which children can make meaning.
  • Assessment. As JPG says, you don’t need to test a player who has completed the most difficult level of Halo on his Halo-playing skills: the assessment is built into the game. His argument is that there must be some means of mimicking this design when designing, for instance, algebra-learning courses. Would it not be possible for students to only qualify for a more challenging level once they defeated the last, in a way that was built into the whole learning process – and without the endless annual trauma of exams.
  • Problem-solving. In just a few comments, JPG brings a breath of fresh air to the turgid knowledge vs. skills debate currently boring the UK. Facts about Science/ French vocab items/ History dates are putting so many children off because, despite teachers’ vigorous assertions to the contrary, they can’t see them as tools. In well-designed games, knowledge is realized as tools. To quote JPG more fully:

“School is locked into content-fetish. It’s all about facts. Biology is the 1200 facts somebody in Biology discovered. Memorise 1100 and get ’em on paper – you pass Biology. [But] Biology, Physics, Chemistry ARE NOT FACTS; they are problems to be solved. And Biologists, Chemists and Physicists use facts as tools to solve these problems, and once they’ve used them again and again, they can’t be forgotten.”

I have one criticism so far:

  • This is a little unfair, as I have only got about fifty pages through it, but I can’t understand JPG’s unbridled support for Marc Prensky’s Don’t Bother Me Mom I’m Learning. The splurge of exclamation marks (+15 per page in some parts) is off-putting; the lack of footnotes unsettling. The hysterically partisan style (chapters are titled with scammy phrases like “But Wait – What About All That Bad Stuff I Hear About In The Press”) is what really put me off, though. Once I’ve finished the book, I hope to post more, but I get the feeling that this stuff is only going to convince the massively-sceptical wider population if its approach is cautious and substantiated with sound, academic arguments.