Reinventing the wheel

On my first day as a trainee teacher in 1986, one of the senior staff at the worthily progressive School of Education at U.E.A. really did wheel out the old chestnut:

“If anyone asks you what you teach, the answer is Children.”

I think this derives from the long-standing progressive-left view of education as an instrument of social policy, in which academic disciplines (and pretty much everything else) were subordinated to the raw social objectives of something between an induction and indoctrination process for society’s young.

This was a fore-taste of the reservations I increasingly experienced about the whole way the educational establishment runs things: I unashamedly went into teaching in part from a desire to work with, and educate others in, my specific discipline. I was not best pleased to hear that such things were to be relegated to bit-parts in some grand scheme of social manipulation.

The surprising thing is that this agenda has lasted so long: the stimulus for this post was John Tomsett’s recent rumination on the nature of subject-specific pedagogy, which implied that the notion of subject disciplines having intrinsic importance for how people teach is still unfamiliar or even bizarre to many.

Geography suffers particularly in this respect: for decades it has been a Cinderella subject. The public still seems to think it consists of memorising lists of capital cities, while even its exponents often fail to see it as a repository of discrete expertise. I think this derives from the fact that to those concerned, it appears to study the blindingly obvious.

In recent months I have become involved with the production of the local Neighbourhood Plan – and the ensuing discussion with both those involved and the community at large has revealed this for the myth that it is. It has become clear that local developments and dynamics which were indeed blindingly obvious to me (and another local geographer) seemed largely invisible to many others, to the point that they required significant explanation. What geographers see and understand about the world is certainly not blindingly obvious to those not thus trained. But such training is extremely useful in ‘reading’ the world around us in a complex way – and for that reason, if no other, I would have thought that this subject-specific expertise is highly desirable. The fact is, geographers, like all other academics, live their subject to the point that they cease to notice – and this then saturates their teaching with not just specific content but an entire  mind-set that is unique to their, as every, discipline.

Many of those who were supposedly ‘leading teaching’ in my school were from the pure and applied sciences – including the usual share of overly-competitive ex-P.E. teachers. My experience suggested they never did understand (or perhaps care) why those of us who taught arts and humanities had such difficulties with the concept and application of linear, measurable progression that they were happily using. It was only when I first observed and then taught some basic maths that the utter foreignness of not only their techniques, but also their mindset became apparent. By then I was a highly-experienced humanities teacher – but I struggled greatly to do justice to even basic maths: the required approach was just too alien to my own.

It is tempting to regard this as a case of systemisers versus empathisers: those running the system largely came from technical subjects, whose approach (and perhaps general world-view) was compatible with a mechanistic, linear, quantitative approach; almost none of them had any grounding in the more interpretive, evaluative subjects of the arts or humanities. And being systemisers, they were quite happy insensitively imposing technical-fix approaches on their colleagues in blissful ignorance that it is simply not possible accurately to assess the skills of critical argument, let alone emotive creativity required in such subjects in such reductive, linear ways. It became clear that it was most certainly not a matter of it being ‘all just teaching’: those subject-specific skills were so deeply-imbued that their practitioners (including me) often failed to recognise them for what they were. And yet they (necessarily) coloured our entire view of what we were doing.

Csikszentmihalyi observed a similar divide between psychologists and surgeons: the latter loved ‘practical, mechanical medicine’ and despised the former as wishy-washy, while in their turn, the psychologists revelled in the subtleties of reading human behaviour and despised the surgeons as crude mechanics. And ne’er the twain shall meet. This is why it is essential that one group must not gain hegemony over the other.

To return to the notion of teaching being primarily a matter of social engineering, there is a deep irony here. My objection is certainly not in the desirability of improving people’s life-chances, but to the fact that due to the foibles of human nature (which systemisers often ignore), direct attempts at achieving it rarely work – and are highly vulnerable to political misappropriation. On the other hand, people who learn the basics of geography (and every other specific subject) actually end up equipped with very real life-applicable knowledge, taught by people for whom the appropriate mindset is second nature. Incidentally, we might also reflect here on the unseen consequences of the widespread use of non-specialist teachers.

With the greatest of respect to John Tomsett, to be mystified or bemused by this betrays the extent of the error perpetrated by those for whom education is only a form of direct social engineering. That even reflective individuals such as John are only just reconsidering this shows just how deeply the approach has penetrated the whole profession. I find it hard to believe that they (who must all have their own subject specialities, too) could have been quite so greatly taken in. Or at least I would if I hadn’t been too, for quite some time. (While I ‘felt’ there was something wrong, it took many years to pin-point it).

Those who, from classical times onward, formed the body of education around the study of discrete disciplines knew more about what they were doing than the modern outlook credits. Academic subjects are more than simply a vehicle for delivering education: they are education itself. It seems that many in educational circles who have believed otherwise, but who may now be thinking again, have spent the last forty years in effect reinventing yet another wheel.

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