Recently, Debra Kidd wrote a post that I said that I would respond to. Twitter is not the medium to analyse this properly – it is too terse. And Debra raises some important points. However, I think that the conclusions that she draws are profoundly wrong.
Debra notes the recent research findings of Sugata Mitra that students can learn things for themselves. There has been much comment about the validity of these findings and I don’t intend to analyse that here. However, there is an important point to make. Were there to be anyone who was arguing that children cannot learn things by themselves, then Debra’s post would be an effective rebuttal of it. She writes of Sam who, after developing an interest in natural disasters, researched geology and Zen Buddhism before alighting on a desire to study Japanese. If the claim is that all children require teacher input in order to learn anything at all then even Debra’s single case would prove this wrong.
However, I am not sure that anyone is making this claim. I think we are confusing the part with the whole.
For instance, I am quite clear that some children can learn to read by simply being exposed to books and a supportive environment, even if this process is not very efficient. If I start to discuss phonics on Twitter then pretty soon someone will point out to me that they learnt to read, or their child learnt to read, without systematic synthetic phonics. I suppose that I am meant to find this surprising or a refutation of my argument. I find it to be neither.
Let us consider, for example, the fact that a proportion of people will recover from the Ebola virus without intervention. Figures are hard to come by but let us imagine that I were able to present you with a personal testimony from a survivor. Would you conclude from this that patients who are suffering from Ebola should not be given medical intervention? I suspect that you would not. You see, it is not the fact that some people can survive Ebola without medical attention that is important.
This is an issue that also illuminates Mitra’s work. If we take his famous hole-in-the-wall experiment at face value, then we have to accept that some children taught themselves how to use computers. But which children? As @teach_well has discovered, although located near to slums, it is not clear that it is slum children who benefited from Mitra’s machines. Clearly, the presence of Mitra’s computers most benefits those children who are best prepared to take advantage of this opportunity. I would suggest that these are likely to be more middle-class children; they are less likely to be required to spend time earning money and they are more likely to have the relevant foundational knowledge. We have no way of knowing that Mitra’s approach would benefit all students in a particular setting. In my experience, it is relatively easy to get some children learning. The task of education systems is to maximise learning for all. This should be the mission of educators committed to social justice.
Truly, Sam seems like a remarkable boy. And you can’t help nodding in agreement with Debra when she writes about Sam’s RE teacher who can only comment that he talks too much whilst giving him a relatively low grade. The boy has developed a passionate interest in Buddhism, for goodness sake! However, this also illustrates another point about self-directed interest-only learning.
The great benefit of the sort of RE that is taught in U.K. schools – which is not replicated Australia – is that you have to learn about different religions. If Sam is interested in Zen Buddhism then that’s great but should we conclude that he should be able to single-mindedly pursue that interest in RE lessons? If so, he will not find out about other religions. No doubt, Sam has researched these already. However, if accepted as a general principle then how comfortable would we be with Muslim students who only ever learn about Islam or Christian students who only ever learn about Christianity? Yes, it is great for education to develop passions in students. I am quite taken with Kieran Egan’s idea that we should all have a specialist area, even if I worry about the practicalities. But a common core of knowledge builds empathy and enables us to understand the passions of others.
As a boy, I read ‘Doctor Who’ books. My teacher made me read ‘The Hobbit’. I didn’t like it much. In fact, I resented having to read it. However, I now remember much more about The Hobbit than any of those Doctor Who books. I suppose that you could argue that my teacher oppressed me. I tend to think that she helped me gain an education.
My own daughter has recently developed a passion for science. I do not know what sparked Sam’s interest in natural disasters but I am quite clear about what happened to my daughter. Although still in primary school, she started to have science lessons from a specialist science teacher. Ever since, she has come home buzzing with ideas and questions. A rich, knowledge-based curriculum has the potential to provoke passions. It might not always do so. After all, we are individuals and I might enjoy something that you find quite dull. But it is clear that I am never going to develop a passion for something if I don’t know that it exists.
Which is why a rich, knowledge-based curriculum is even more important for children from deprived backgrounds. These are the children who are less likely to visit museums in the holidays or have rich discussions around a middle-class dinner table. I suppose that this is why Michaela Community School replicates that dinner table at lunchtime in school. It is why it is critical that we expose students to ideas that they are unlikely to just happen upon.
The alternative is the sort of vacuous lessons that we can all remember; a lesson in the abstract about ‘writing’ or ‘reading comprehension’ or making some kind of dumb poster. I remember being taught word-processing because of future, paperless offices and the fact that we would not use handwriting any more. I was taught how to name a file so that I would be able to save it and how to set-up WYSIWYG justification in ‘View’; a BBC micro word-processor. It was dull, pointless, ultimately useless and I’d have been far better off learning some Shakespeare. It might not have developed into a lifelong passion but at least it wouldn’t have been a waste of my time.