‘Something’ may be happening in education – even though I suspect that a lot of those at the sharp end wish that rather less was happening for once… But reading around the debates that are currently taking place, I get a distinct sense of things moving on. Many of the shibboleths of the last two decades seem to be coming under fire in a way that would have been unthinkable even a couple of years ago, and I think that is no bad thing. Even Ofsted seems willing to think again in a way that would have been inconceivable just a very short time ago.
Many of the practices we have been directed to enact have felt fundamentally misguided to me, and it is perhaps instructive that many of them neither made it beyond partially-outlined concepts which no one ever explained how to enact fully, nor stood the test of even a short period of time.
Books are now getting published that a few years ago would perhaps never have seen the light of day; when I myself produced a similar script some years ago, I was told it was, “Not what the education world wants to hear”. The Most talked-about of these is Tom Bennett’s Teacher Proof, and I have just finished reading Daisy Christodoulou’s work Seven Myths About Education. This is a clearly-written and well thought out argument for the restoration of the teaching of knowledge. Her basic premise is that functional and thinking skills cannot develop in a vacuum; that they need a body of internalised knowledge to act upon, and that neither knowledge nor skills are as transferrable from one subject domain to another as has been claimed.
While it is easy to argue that Daisy is someone for whom facts work in a way they don’t for everyone (she is the former captain of a University Challenge champions team), I don’t think that need compromise her arguments too far. What she has to say makes a lot of sense to me, both from my own experience, and from teaching children for over a quarter of a century. Children seem to like facts – they are relatively concrete, and easily understood. I think we forget, in our rush to teach higher concepts, that children simply do not have the capacity for abstract conceptual thought that adults do.
Why this change is happening now isn’t very clear. I would like to think that it’s an admission that the policies of the past two decades have been around long enough for it to be clear that they have not delivered what they promised – and have perhaps even compromised genuine education further. Much of the ‘evidence’ of success they produced has been discredited, or at least more realistically reinterpreted. But I’m not sure whether the evangelists of constructivist education are really going to admit defeat that easily.
I wonder whether the growing momentum of the edu-blogosphere itself is having an effect – it’s becoming easier to disseminate alternative views; Ofsted’s recent meeting with a group of bloggers might suggest as much. I’m also curious to know whether this is the unintended consequence of actions by our much-reviled Secretary of State for Education. Much of what he is doing seems to me highly dogmatic – but who knows, he might just be changing the climate enough for a wider discussion to take root. It certainly needs to.
What isn’t yet clear is whether we are about to experience a rapid paradigm-shift, or whether change will be more gradual. For those like me who have genuinely struggled with counter-intuitive ideologies and command-control teaching that went deeply against the grain, for whom recent educational orthodoxy has been a blight on our careers akin to living under an oppressive dictatorship, rapid change would seem more than welcome. However, the danger of this is that we might simply substitute one daft world-view with an equally daft alternative. It would not be the first time. Maybe gradual evolution would in fact be better. Despite my reservations, I would certainly not claim that the quantitative revolution in education has taught us nothing of value, even if it is only what happens when target culture subverts authentic human behaviour.
With any luck, we are beginning to realise the limitations of such an approach and are starting to move back towards a more realistic, sustainable position. One major step would be to recognise that education simply is not a science, that the fundamentals of the process are rooted in unique human interactions that make sense only on the scale of the individual, and not macro-scale statistical analyses which are really only of use to policy wonks. Those who still argue from such positions are even starting to look a little dated – the discussion is (hopefully) moving on. It’s unlikely that ”giving more power back to classroom teachers’ is either going to happen overnight – or feel like we expect it to. But maybe that is what is starting to happen.
If that were the case, then it would indeed represent progress.