Education Backward

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One of the neat rhetorical flourishes that has helped make Ken Robinson’s TED talk so successful is the repeated use of little rhetorical questions: “Am I right?”; “Don’t you?”; “Wouldn’t you?”; “Have you heard of her?” and so on. It draws the audience in and invites them to have opinions about things that they perhaps had not really thought about before. Don’t you agree?

The same flourish peppers a vision statement by Guy Claxton. The statement sits on the website of Education Forward, a new U.K. organisation with a distinct agenda for education. A more succinct version of their aims can currently be found here. The group seems linked to a magazine called “Class Action” which serendipitously has the ring of a Marxist slogan. I suggest that these organisations are linked because teachers are encouraged to write for Class Action on the Education Forward website.

It is interesting to deconstruct the aims of Education First as expressed in Claxton’s vision statement and other posts on the site. A number of times, the website makes explicit a wish to move past “Endless debates” but this seems rather worrying given that their vision is highly debatable. It is as if they long for a time when their views were the orthodoxy and dissenters were marginalised.

It doesn’t take long to figure out that the vision of Education Forward is the vision of progressive education. Education Forward is progtastic. It is totally progmungus. It is a great big steaming bowl of proggidge with a neon sign above it emblazoned with a downwards pointing arrow and “PROGRESSIVE EDUCATION” in bright red green letters.

There are all the usual themes, starting with the name, Education Forward; progressive education always invokes the future and has been doing so for at least a hundred years. In 1918, John Frankin Bobbitt wrote: “It is the feeling of the writer that in the social reconstructions of the post-war years that lie just ahead of us, education is to be called upon to bear a hitherto undreamed-of burden of responsibility; and to undertake unaccustomed labors. To present some of the theory needed for the curriculum labors of this new age has been the task herein attempted.”

This is echoed on the Education Forward website where we are warned that:

“Societal and technological change, of a kind never before witnessed, has been hurtling toward us, demanding that we radically rethink every aspect of our lives except, it seems, the implications for education reform. It’s as though, faced with the sheer scale of problems that our primary-age kids will have to face in the coming years – dominated by automation, artificial intelligence, the impact of climate change and mass economic migration – we’ve decided to seek comfort in irrelevance.”

Claxton gives us naturalistic explanations of academic learning, suggesting that, “Some children take naturally to academic study and enjoy school. Some, whether they enjoy it or not, have the background, the support and the temperament to be ‘winners’ at the grades game. But many do not.”

Academic subjects are not natural for anyone. That’s why we invented schools. If the bulk of people could pick these ideas up naturally then we wouldn’t need schools at all. Instead, academic learning is effortful and unnatural.

It is a fundamental error to note that a child struggles with a particular subject and conclude that perhaps that subject is not for them. Instead, we should be looking at the teaching and whether it has enabled access for that child to that subject. This is why teachers have started to turn away from Education Forward’s preferred ‘pedagogies’; it is because these teaching methods don’t work very well and have a particularly pernicious effect on the students who struggle the most.

It is a school’s job to bring everyone along a path that ends with mastery of the academic skills and abilities required in modern society such as the ability to read well at a high level and the ability to clearly express thoughts in writing. I don’t mind whether young adults, at the age of eighteen, decide to become plumbers or cartoonists or lecturers, but I do think all lives are enriched by a strong academic education beforehand. To write-off some students as if they are not academic is to limit their future choices. It is wrong and it reminds me of the argument made by Kathryn Asbury in the TES that we should nurture individual differences and this would mean that, “Schools would need to revise their infrastructure and teachers would focus much less on pushing square pegs into round holes at a predetermined speed.” I simply don’t believe in such genetic determinism because, every day, children confound any predictions we might make. Individuals defy our attempts to guess what shape of peg they are.

Education Forward also repeats flawed ideas about knowledge. There is little value, apparently, in acquiring ‘snippets’ of knowledge. Instead, knowledge is only valuable in its application or in the pursuit of developing fuzzy, ill-defined abilities such as learning how to learn. There is, of course, little evidence that such abilities can be taught.

Presenting Progressive Education as a revolutionary movement is such an old trope that I’m actually slightly surprised that it is being tried again. The ideology has repeatedly failed for over a hundred years. It has been mainstream in education schools for decades and has a large influence in education bureaucracies, even if the tide is against it in England at present. If you want to look at a country that embraces the vision of Education First then Scotland serves as a good example. Scotland has downplayed standardised tests and has tried to emphasise the development of nebulous personal qualities through the implementation of its Curriculum for Excellence. This has been an abject failure, leaving teachers in a state of confusion and levels of basic literacy and numeracy plunging.

Despite not wanting a debate or to openly label their stance as progressive, Claxton is comfortable with attacking traditionalism:

“Schools that adhere to a traditional curriculum and cultivate an obsession with ‘right answers’, however, may inadvertently make matters worse. A Right/Wrong culture can feed what psychologists call a ‘need for closure’ that makes complexity and uncertainty feel more intolerable, not less. Such teaching methods and school cultures risk encouraging intolerance of other views which are seen as simply ‘Wrong’ – or worse, ‘Bad’. In addition, an inflexibly traditional curriculum and factually-based assessment may fail to engage some students – perhaps those who need it most – sufficiently strongly to make them willing to expend the mental energy that would stretch their minds.

It seems that traditionalism is even bad for children’s mental health…

Despite all this and despite my obvious concerns, I welcome the advent of Education Forward. These last few years, adherents of this ideology have been pretending they have no ideology and are just asking questions. At least they have now planted their standard. Let the battle of ideas commence and let the evidence be known.

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