A short history of sneaky teaching

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In my recent article for Quillette, I noted a paradox. Jean-Jacques, the tutor of the eponymous hero of Rousseau’s Emile, avoids any form of expository teaching on the assumption that education must follow the contours a child’s natural, and therefore good, inclinations. Rousseau explains that children are taught by three masters; nature, men and things. However, the education provided by men and things must follow that of nature because the goal of education is the goal of nature.

However, Rousseau reasoned, if you simply plant a child directly into the busy ‘highway’ of life, he or she will be exposed to the wrong influences and be corrupted. Jean-Jacques therefore carefully controls Emile’s environment. But how is Jean-Jacques to make decisions as to what this environment should be? Is Jean-Jacques not himself part of the corrupt world? How can we be sure that his influence will nurture Emile’s true nature rather than corrupt it? Indeed, Jean-Jacques does far more than simply build a protective wall around Emile’s environment, he actively manipulates it.

For instance, Jean-Jacques sets out to teach Emile the notion of property. There is no value in simply telling Emile about property because such words ‘have no intelligible meaning’. Instead, ‘lessons should always be in deeds rather than words.’ So Jean-Jacques hatches a plan. He lets Emile observe the gardener and encourages him to wish to garden for himself. He helps Emile plant beans and explains, ‘I shall approve of his plan, share his hobby, and work with him, not for his pleasure but my own; at least, so he thinks’. He tells Emile that the beans belong to Emile. However, when they return they find the beans have been pulled up by the gardener. Emile has planted his beans on the gardener’s land and the gardener is pretty cross about it because he had already planted some Maltese melons there.

Clearly, Jean-Jacques and the gardener have conspired to play this trick on Emile in order to teach him a lesson. Is this really about following Emile’s nature or is it about imposing adult ideas on to Emile?

This tension is present in every enactment of the progressive approach.

Consider, for instance, the constructivist science investigation that I used to lead as a young teacher. Students would react different sized marble chips with acid and observe the amount of fizzing or, in a more sophisticated version, the rate at which gas was produced. There was a clear intent – the students were supposed to figure out that smaller marble chips react at a faster rate than larger ones because there is more surface in contact with the acid. I was not meant explain this (although I often did find myself explaining it in a later lesson because students didn’t figure it out). Instead, I pretended to be finding out alongside them. Nonetheless, I was clear what I wanted them to learn.

Being the subject of someone else’s manipulations – being played tricks on – is not always a pleasant experience. If anything, it seems mildly disrespectful because this is not the way we tend to treat people who we see as equals. However, at least in this case, we are discussing a technical, scientific concept.

I am far less comfortable with sneaky teaching being used to form students’ ideas about politics, religion or other areas where morals and values are involved. If a teacher stands at the front of the room and explains what capitalism is, why some people are in favour of it and why some people are against it, then at least a student knows the source of the argument and can decide how much weight to give it. Yes, in this case it would still be wrong for the teacher to be willfully biased because students tend to listen to their teachers. However, imagine trying to teach the same idea through a series of emotive videos where the teacher smiles enigmatically and noncommittedly as he or she draws thoughts out of the students. I think this is far more dangerous because there is a deliberate ambiguity. The teacher clearly knows what ideas he or she intends the students to develop and has selected the materials accordingly – just as in the example of the marble chips – yet these ideas are presented as if they are the students’ own.

This is one of the reasons why I am so sceptical of critical pedagogy. The claims is that it develops critical thinking and yet its premises are rarely questioned. You can’t question the premises of sneaky teaching because they are, by definition, obscure. And that serves a purpose.

The publication of Emile was received with enthusiasm among the thinkers of the day. Thomas Day, a member of Birmingham’s Lunar Society, a group of influential intellectuals who met on the night of the full Moon, was so taken with Rousseau’s model of education that he concocted a quite extraordinary plan. Day, who was not much to look at and had poor personal hygiene, was surprised and dismayed to have a number marriage proposals rejected and so he enlisted the help of his friend John Bicknell. First, they visited a foundling hospital in Shrewsbury where Bicknell selected a twelve-year-old girl, Ann Kingston, who they procured on the false pretext that she would be indentured as a servant to an unknowing Richard Edgeworth. They then proceeded to a foundling hospital in London where, using the same story, they procured an eleven-year-old, Dorcas Car.

Renamed as Sabrina and Lucretia Sidney, Day took the girls to France to train them according to Rousseau’s methods. Day’s intention was that one of them would eventually become his suitably educated wife.

France was chosen because the girls could not speak French and so would not be exposed to corrupting influences. France, however, did not work out well, and Day returned home and quickly apprenticed Lucretia to a London hat maker.

Day persisted with Sabrina, whose training involved, among other things, having to wade fully clothed into cold lakes, having hot wax dripped on her arms and a gun, loaded with a charge but no bullet, fired at her feet. This was intended to foster stoicism – or what we might today call ‘grit’. It did not work very well and Day was disappointed when Sabrina yelled out and failed to maintain her composure when shot at. It was many years later that she learnt of Day’s plan.

Day never married Sabrina. She ended up marrying John Bicknell.


11 thoughts on “A short history of sneaky teaching

  1. A clever and illuminating analysis, Greg! You’ve said what I’ve long felt about sneaky teaching but been unable to put into words.

  2. You outline how critical pedagogy allows teachers to sneakily impart sets of values which they appear to draw from the children – which method is quite nasty really. Invented by that arch-elitist Plato in his Socratic dialogues. Plato always suggests that the ideas Socrates puts forward are drawn out from the people he is speaking to – that they have produced the ideas, not had them introduced to them by clever questioning, and that these ideas are perfectly logical. Very underhand. This is a criticism of Plato, why is it not a criticism of critical pedagogy (although a few have always muttered that some teachers play ‘guess what the teacher is thinking’ really)?

  3. I agree with jamesisaylestonebulldogs for the most part. Though in defense of Plato, he includes critiques of Socrates’ approach in the dialogues, usually offered by someone Socrates has been talking with. The young Adeimantus levels just this sort of criticism at Socrates in the “Republic.”

    “Socrates, no one could contradict you in this. But here is how those who hear what you now say are affected on each occasion. They believe that because of inexperience at questioning and answering, they are at each question misled a little by the argument; and when the littles are collected at the end of the arguments, the slip turns out to be great and contrary to the first assertions. And just as those who aren’t clever at playing draughts are finally checked by those who are and don’t know where to move, so they too are finally checked by this other kind of draughts, played not with counters but speeches, and don’t know what to say” (Republic, 487b-c).

    So Plato a) is aware of this criticism of Socrates and b) makes sure his reader is also aware of it and so c) compels us to think about it. It’s less “sneaky” because Plato brings the method to the surface and forces us to wonder what Socrates is doing and to regard it from the student’s perspective. Unlike Rousseau, Socrates isn’t manipulating the lived experiences of his interlocutors (as described in the bean story, above). He’s drawing out their opinions based on what they have already experienced and thought about and heard from others (e.g. the poets) in the world they inhabit. It often turns out that their opinions have a grain of truth to them, but the person holding the opinion hasn’t subjected their opinion to critical scrutiny. Socrates helps them to do that by posing questions that seem infuriating because they expose inconsistencies and contradictions. The dialogues typically end in “aporia”–uncertainty–which inspires further thinking and questioning rather than dogmatic certainty.

    For what it’s worth, my colleagues and I published a book recently on the Socratic method. In my chapter I attempt to clarify what I see are the differences between the progressive approach to education (which sometimes claims to be using a Socratic method) and the genuine article. https://www.amazon.com/Socratic-Method-Today-Student-Centered-Transformative/dp/081537190X

  4. Co-construction of knowledge is a thing here. I regard that as sneaky, as there is a pretense that the teacher is learning alongside the student. Do students really feel comfortable with that? In my experience, students need to know that their teacher knows what they’re talking about.

  5. Pedagogy should be driven by content and I agree in Learning Areas where factual knowledge is the end point ‘sneaky teaching’ is far less effective. However in areas such as Literature and the Arts, a more flexible approach is often required. When teaching ‘Wuthering Heights’ for instance, I would contextualise the novel but wouldn’t say ‘It means (this) ….’ before they read it. This would be the same in the Arts. Is this sneaky?

    1. Maybe you wouldn’t state this before they read it, but you could, particularly if you think students are likely to misinterpret it because reading would then be wasted effort. You should definitely teach ‘some people argue that [insert detail] means..’ as part of the teaching sequence, and even add ‘whereas others argue…’

      1. Absolutely, but I’d let them read it first, discussing it as they went. In other words I think the more effective pedagogy in this case would be to let them construct their own meaning from it which could then be discussed against perhaps alternative readings from the rest of the class and more expert input. I value students’ ideas about the literature they read and want them to feel confident about talking about them and justifying their responses. ‘Guess what is in the teacher’s head’ doesn’t work in this discipline as students are learning to construct their own meaning from texts. Of course, as they are guided by the teacher, the begin to think more and more in the realms of the discipline and become better at understanding how to make more informed responses. This will come from increased experience and expertly facilitated discussion. This requires skilful teaching beyond WALT and WILF type pedagogy which suits some content more than other content. Teaching will never be able to be completely formulaic. A good teacher will know when to use which and beyond.

      2. I have heard this argument a lot but I am not entirely convinced by it. It clearly works well for the most talented English students but I think it is worth simply explaining some of the proposed interpretations to many students rather than always insisting that they come up with their own. Talented students will not be damaged by such an approach because they can always challenge these interpretations.

        I remember seeing a unit plan once for the teaching of the film ‘Mabo’. It said something like ‘students will need to know Eddie Mabo’s character traits’ but then it did not say what these were. The teachers were worried about somehow interfering with students reaching their own conclusions. However, when you asked the teachers, they all had a clear and consistent view of what these character traits were. So to hide them from the students is to insist on a form of discovery learning, equivalent to asking maths students to make-up their own ways of solving problems. In which case, we can predict the result from research – the more talented students will still learn but those who are struggling won’t learn all that much.

  6. You are assuming that good teachers won’t discuss the dominant readings. Good teachers will always let their students ‘ín’ on this. To give them that first will not nurture thinking minds open to response and question but create students who turn first to Brodie’s Notes / Mondarch Notes type of publications etc and ‘learn’ the right answers. This will impoverish the discipline. The idea is always to cultivate the thinking literacies of the discipline – students who learn to think like critical, sensitive readers and skilful writers. What you describe is spoon feeding students material that will scrape them through exams but deny them the reward of understanding what the discipline is all about.

    1. I think ‘spoon feeding’ is unnecessarily pejorative. I think you assume that hearing the ideas of others will somehow diminish a student’s own ability to generate ideas. On the contrary, I think it enhances it by providing models.

  7. To come up with your own ideas based on your own emotional and intellectual response to a text, or a part of a text, is much harder to do once expert opinions have been given to you and yet is one of the joys of literature. It would depend on the complexity of the text and a good teacher will know when to support students and when to let them have a go first. A cycle will be created that will build their confidence in their own ideas while being supported by previous examples. I am a believe in mixing things up in literary appreciation. I do see ‘spoon feeding’ practice though, which ultimately disempowers students in this field.

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