Phil Beadle has recently taken to writing blog posts about the education debate. He is of the view that there is a group of people – the ‘neo trads’ – who have achieved some successes such as forcing Ofsted, the English schools inspectorate, to stop mandating a teaching style. Yet things have now probably gone a bit too far and Beadle is staring into the bathtub, wondering what happened to the baby.
For those of you who are unaware of Phil Beadle, he is a celebrity teacher of English who appeared on TV in the early 2000s. He also wrote a book on how to teach, a book that I understand is popular on teacher education courses in the UK. I haven’t read his book but this video clip is based upon it; a clip in which Beadle suggests, among other things, that nobody actually learns anything from a teacher-led discussion and teachers shouldn’t use this approach [This is at odds with a vast swath of educational research].
Beadle must have been accused of mounting ‘ad hominem’ arguments because he makes the following point about neo trad revolutionaries:
“We find ourselves, therefore, in the confusing and disappointing situation where the revolutionaries formerly at the gate appear to rather like the sofas in virtual Versailles; and we must greet the new boss to note that the only marked dissimilarity to the old boss is the amount of virtual coffee breath expended as they shout ‘ad hom’ in the face of anyone who disagrees with them.”
An ad hominem is a flawed argument and it is easy to understand why it’s flawed if we drop the Latin and call it a ‘personal attack’, which is what it is. Paul Graham does a great job of explaining why this is unconvincing. I also think that a personal attack tends to reinforce the opinions of those who already agree with the attacker whilst leaving everyone else unmoved. I might as well respond to the coffee breath line with, “Yeah, well Phil Beadle smells of cabbage!”
And so I am going to ignore Beadle’s insinuations that neo trads are posh boys who are set to gain from textbook sales and, instead, I am going to address what substance I can find.
Beadle makes a mistake that is common to educators of his ‘generation’; he confuses intentions with effects. Teachers have far less agency than we might imagine – a point on which I agree with Gert Biesta – and so to laud a teaching approach simply because of the intention behind it is naive and simplistic. This is why I am interested in evidence. We all know what the road to hell is paved with.
Or do we? To understand that allusion, you have to have knowledge. This is what the revolution has been about. Beadle makes some allowances for this, but they are begrudging. He caricatures history teaching in a passage of classic progressive education polemic that is directly descended from the work of John Dewey:
“There were, in fact, rational (and political) arguments for moving away from a transmission model of teaching to what many teachers felt at the time to be a more ‘democratised’ approach. Again, this was more appropriate to some subjects than others: it may be that, in maths, group work isn’t much use at all, or that, in history, fulfilling the rather paltry ambition of teaching them a set of dates works best by the teacher telling them such dates (though there are probably vastly more interesting and more memorable ways of doing this).”
Does Beadle really think that this has all been about learning dates? His notion of democratic education amounts to naught if it doesn’t achieve anything of the sort. In order to discuss and argue about history, you need to know lots about it. That is the aim of those who are prioritising the paltry ambition of teaching facts. They want students to be able to discuss and debate in an informed and adult way rather than just talking off the tops of their heads.
And these facts also help in English. Texts don’t exist in an historical or cultural vacuum. If you want to understand a text then you need background knowledge more than you need generic comprehension skills.
Rather than drawing on the evidence for how to make group work effective, Beadle admits that, to his generation of teachers, valorising group work was about a mistrust of authority as much as anything. He raises some big questions. One of these is, “How are we to view colonialism?” Well, if you ask the British public then the answer seems to be ‘with pride’. Certainly, that’s what a recent YouGov poll showed.
Yet it is widely acknowledged that the British public know very little about the British empire. Michael Gove and Jeremy Corbyn both agree that more knowledge of the empire should be taught in schools. Isn’t that strange? Despite Beadle’s passionate claim to the moral and political high ground, it turns out that ignorance is the tool of the oppressor and that a strong base of factual knowledge is the first step, and only the first step, in overcoming this. Knowing dates is about knowing what happened, when and in what order. It facilitates critical thinking. It means you’re less likely to be fooled by the new boss.
Nobody is questioning the intentions behind the uninformed group-work and general fluffing about that has been so fashionable for far too long. We question the effect. If group work and mute teachers were meant to deliver us a Freirean revolution in political consciousness then they failed. Abjectly.
It’s time to move on from the mistakes of the past.