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  • Review: Seven Myths About Education June 29, 2014

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Actualite , trackback

    seven myths

    There is a lovely story from a successful scholarship school in New York. When the head was asked how he had managed to keep standards so high at his institution, when other nearby schools had lost their edge, he replied that it was simple. Every time a new instruction from the Department of Educaton or a fat didactics pamphlet landed on his desk he filed said information in the wastepaper basket without even troubling to look. Anyone who had come into contact with the material that passes for the ‘science’ of education will not be surprised at either his method or the school’s success. Giving abstract, politicised inviduals, who have sunk into the gooiest parts of the social sciences, responsibility for the training of state-educated children (particularly when the experts have often never taught or studied in a state school) is just a catastrophe waiting to happen: like handing over the welfare of girl-guides to a particularly misogynistic chapter of Kabul’s Taliban. But wait! Lo, a hero in the last days! Enter from the left stage, Daisy Christodoulou and her Seven Myths about Education, ready to drive back the didacticists. Daisy is interested, above all, in education in British secondary schools but the lessons are, unfortunately, applicable elsewhere, particularly across the English-speaking world.

    The seven myths are itemized on the back cover, but we won’t bother with them here. The truth is that, in the same way that Christianity boiled down the Mosaic ten to a single ‘love your neighbor’, strangehistory will now reduce Daisy’s seven to one master myth: ‘understanding should take priority over facts.’ Daisy keeps going at this same myth from different angles but here is the hydra that needs to be stabbed through the heart: if that one lie was slain then the others would all curl up and die with it. The point, as Daisy explains again and again, is that you cannot understand let alone pontificate until you have a bedrock of knowledge. As this is a history blog take a historical example: frameworks of dates and events help students and allow them to explore more complex themes of historiography. You need to know the chronology and personalities of the Norman Invasion to be able to discuss the fate of the Anglo-Saxons, say; or, God help us, compare the actions of the dispossessed in Tibet. However, the masters of education in Britain see fact learning as a distraction from the real job of teaching skills (I know, I know you can’t have skills without facts, but these people are not very bright). Teachers are expected to be ‘guides on the side’ not ‘sages on the stage’ and are to speak as little as possible in ‘student-centred lessons’: the terminology tells you all your need to know about the stolid mediocrity that Daisy and her allies are up against.

    I am just old enough to have ‘benefitted’ from the beginning of this anti-knowledge revolution myself. I never, like my grandfather, had to learn clockwise ever river that reached the sea along the British coast. I never, like my father, learnt the correct order of English monarchs with a cute rhyme (I still have problems with that despite being a historian). And I almost never learnt poetry by rote like my grandmother, who used to be able to start reciting verse to herself in the morning when the kids went to school and was able to continue without break until they got home in the afternoon. (What a life…) In fact, through a series of As at 16 and 18, a ‘starred first’ from a prestigious university and a doctorate magna cum laude (thankyou, thankyou…) I had constantly to waste my time learning basics that my peers from private school and other countries had got down while I was worrying about puberty. I was lucky in that I had been taught some things like countries on maps, periods in history, biographies of writers. My state teachers were dedicated and decent people, and I have happy memories of most of them: I also came from a middle class family where knowledge was prized. But the situation has worsened in the UK over the past generation. Illiteracy rates have increased (slightly) and children are now less  likely to know where Brazil is in South America or whether the Vikings or the Romans invaded first.

    Where Daisy gets things wrong (in my view) is to take all modern techniques as almost inevitably wrong-headed. For example, the use of role-plays or exploratory projects. The truth is that managed properly and as a culmination of traditional teaching, activities like these can be important, even life-changing experiences for the young. They are perhaps the best that education can offer. But the problem is that they depend not on a bedrock of knowledge, but on an Ayres Rock size lump of knowledge on which to build: they depend, too, on motivated and charismatic teachers, something that all systems can depend on to some extent, but that none can guarantee. Without knowledge and capable teachers such activities are worse than useless: because they undermine self esteem and distort truth. What has happened – and we need a label for the antics of over ambitious policy-makers, like ‘the Peter Principle’ or ‘Godwin’s Law’ – is that school mandarins have recognized these tools as incredibly powerful objects. But they have then demanded that they be applied willy nilly not understanding that, to continue the tool metaphor, they are putting electric saws and power drills into the hands of unsupervised ten year olds, who are, afterwards, told ‘to cut things and see’.

    Public education should worry itself about inspirational education when it can get the basics right and not before. (Home schooling and private schooling are, admittedly, different: the only way to get results in ‘national’ schools though is to be righteously pessimistic about the ability of the modern western state to do anything but tax us well). Public secondary schools should first be sure that (i) children are literate; (ii) children are numerate; (iii) children can describe the six major world religions; (iv) children can place the twenty most populous countries on a map; (v) children can put antiquity, ‘dark ages’ (screw the revisionists), middle ages, renaissance and modernity in the correct order; etc etc. When this has been achieved education systems can start to plan more ambitious details like role-playing Lady Macbeth. Now, frankly, it is never going to happen in western state schools, not least because of appalling discipline problems (something Daisy sensibly stays away from, one battle at a time)… The heartbreaking truth is that this stuff is easy. In fact, this information could be taught, by the right teacher, in the first month of classes to eleven year olds (really): and that would then leave room for many more years of more interesting Summerhill stuff. But state policy and state schools will constantly sabotage themselves: again nothing will be achieved without pessimistic realism.

    And this is, once more, where I can’t completely climb on Daisy’s hobbyhorse, roomy and attractive as it is. I am actually glad that I never had to learn all the British rivers clockwise around the coast and that Mr Schofield let me do a project on the War of the Roses, instead: though I regret I was never taught the roll of British monarchs (‘Willy, Willy…’). I think it a pity that the head teacher in New York threw away all the didactic instructions that arrived, though I have not the slightest doubt that ‘nothing’ was preferable to ‘everything’. The above is not, however, an argument for the middle way. It is an argument for a  small but diamond hard foundation of knowledge in our schools, the educational equivalent of the nightwatchman state. In my university courses on history, I have undergraduate assign, through discussion, twelve representative dates at the beginning of the course, which, then, provide a scaffolding for our work. I also examine them repeatedly on a map of the territory we will cover. I have a list of famous buildings they should know. You don’t need, as Daisy at one point suggests, 150 dates. You need smaller goals but ones that are constantly checked up upon and where carrots are juicy and where sticks have rusty nails and hurt. In my experience, albeit at the ‘wrong’ level, students are grateful for these certainties and, as long as there is not too much, slurp it up, remembering these things when I meet them again five years later.

    As education and teaching and the ability of experts to lead us to ruination are all a personal obsession I’ve gone off on my own rant here. So apologies to Daisy who needs to be slapped on the back for her book. It is beautifully written. It is ordered. And most impressively it seeks consensus, while, at the same time, being unrelentingly critical. Benjamin Franklin writes somewhere that when you argue with someone you must decide whether you (a) want to have fun or (b) want to change your opponent’s mind. Daisy is a (b) or rather a (B).

    Other good books on education: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com Writing this I remembered Patrick Allitt’s very entertaining (if strangely titled) You’re the Student.