“‘You can go out this morning, my dears, with Mr. Spencer,’ said the governess to her pupils, after listening with pursed-up lips to one of the philosopher’s breakfast tirades against discipline… the philosopher found himself presently in a neighbouring beech wood pinned down in a leaf-filled hollow by little demons, all legs, arms, grins and dancing dark eyes, whilst the elder and more discreet tormentors pelted him with decaying beech leaves.” Beatrice Webb reflecting on the philosopher Herbert Spencer in her memoir, ‘My Apprenticeship’.
In a recent blog post, literacy expert and Professor Emeritus, Tim Shanahan, expressed surprise at the popularity of a teaching approach known as ‘Reading Workshop’. Reading Workshop seems to involve students selecting books to read themselves with the teacher largely getting out of the way. Shanahan notes that this idea has been around for a long time and there is very little evidence to suggest that it leads to either improved reading ability or a greater love of reading. Perhaps students enjoy these sessions in comparison to the other subjects they study but Shanahan is sceptical that this will translate into a love of literature.
I recognise this pattern from science teaching. Practical activity is the great panacea of science teaching because it too is thought to be motivating. Children genuinely do love lighting bunsen burners and placing various items in the flames – who wouldn’t? However, this does not seem to translate into a love of balancing chemical equations. It’s actually pretty easy to motivate students. Every teacher knows that asking a class to make a poster will lead to an easy, conflict-free lesson. The difficulty is in motivating students about academic content; motivating them about the thing you actually want them to learn. Academic content is hard. By its very nature, it requires effort. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t need schools.
It is on this issue of motivation, rather than teaching methods, that educational progressives and traditionalists fundamentally divide. Progressives want learning to be natural and joyful. They want students to learn skills in the same way that they learn to walk or talk. They take a lack of motivation on the part of students as a sign that the teaching is not engaging enough or the curriculum is inappropriate. This is because they come from the romantic tradition that sees truth and beauty in all that is natural; that views children as fundamentally good beings who are corrupted by the world of adults.
Left to their own devices, high school students will choose young adult literature over classic works. This is why educational progressives fight hard to argue that young adult fiction is as worthy of attention as Charlotte Bronte, Virginia Woolf or Zadie Smith. The students’ motivations cannot be wrong. Content must therefore be seen as interchangeable. Yet this creates a problem. If there is no specific content worth learning, what is education for? The solution is to insist that the purpose of education is to teach the nebulous ‘skills’ that are characteristic of modern curricula.
In Reading Workshop, students are practicing the skill of reading. It therefore does not matter what they are reading. If someone presents evidence that Reading Workshop is less effective at developing reading than more traditional methods there are two obvious responses: Firstly, it must not have been done properly. Secondly, who cares if a method is slightly more effective if it puts children off reading for life?
By following children’s interests, we can define a number of such generic skills. Have you noticed that children like using the internet? Right, so let’s define a skill called ‘digital literacy’ and prioritise that over content. Have you noticed that children prefer working on a drama project to learning grammar? That’s fine, we can define a skill called ‘learning to learn’ that children can develop in any context. We’re all good here.
Except that we are not. There are a number of threats to this vision. Hardworking teachers inevitably have to be pragmatists and so, guiltily perhaps, they will subvert the theory. And the biggest threat of all lies in puncturing the foundational myth; that we must motivate students and give them veto over what and how they learn.
You can see this in the reaction to Tom Bennett’s behaviour report. Overwhelmingly welcomed by classroom teachers (see the retweets here, for instance), a number of commentators have taken exception on Twitter. Often, this does not take the form of directly criticising actual points made in the report because that is hard to do. So, instead, we have questions about the use of the word, ‘muscular,’ and so on. Why does this report represent such a threat? Because students must be able to maintain their veto in order to advance the progressive agenda. Teaching techniques that help students engage with traditional academic content call the foundational myth into question. It is meant to be impossible for teachers to have good relationships with students whilst pushing them through content that the students would not have chosen to engage with by themselves.
This is also why you see such a visceral reaction to Michaela Community School in London. It unashamedly uses ‘behaviourist’ techniques to manage student behaviour. The latest spate of outrage comes from the seemingly innocuous idea that Michaela requires students to read only those books that are in the school library when they are in school and not bring in other books from home. This kind of academic quality control is anathema, with one earnest critic wondering whether it was even legal.
I think Michaela gives us a hint at the way forward. There is an unhappy marriage at present between Utopian progressive theorists and a pragmatic teaching profession. The theorists don’t get what they want because the pesky teachers keep subverting the vision. The teachers don’t get what they need because the theorists are in charge, writing generic skills into curricula and generally pushing that agenda by any means possible. And this is why I think Australia needs mechanisms through which the equivalent of a Michaela Community School could open. This is why we need our own Free School model. Rather than continuing to talk past each other, traditionalists could open schools and progressives could open schools. Parents could then choose which vision they prefer.
Of course, progressives would need to find and retain teachers who are prepared to work in their schools. That might be tricky. Perhaps they could follow the lead of Herbert Spencer and try a bit of teaching themselves.