Rousseauian Nonsense

It was recently announced that UK schools minister, Nick Gibb, was taking over responsibility for early childhood education. I welcomed this with a tweet:

For those who don’t know, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was an 18th Century philosopher. His main contribution to education was his work of fiction, Emile, that recounts the education of the eponymous young man by a tutor named Jean-Jacques (which is somewhat ironic because Rousseau gave his own children up to a foundling hospital). Emile is educated with the aim of becoming a ‘natural man’. This education involves no formal teaching. Instead, it follows Emile’s interests and passions, with Emile learning key ideas as he encounters them. Jean-Jacques is a puppet master who carefully contrives situations to push the learning in a certain direction and this is something of a tension in the book: while Jean-Jacques is ostensibly following Emile’s interests, he is working away behind the scenes to manipulate those interests. This is the central tension in all of what later became familiar as educational progressivism.

Very few educators would trace their own philosophy back to Rousseau. Many are likely to have never heard of him. Yet he is influential nonetheless. Early years education is particularly Rousseauian in that teachers are often required by guidelines and regulations to largely avoid formal teaching and follow the child’s interests. For instance, although the guidelines in my own state of Victoria allow for the need for some ‘adult-led’ learning, they suggest this requires that, “Children have some control and input when adults lead the learning… Adult-led learning encompasses those play experiences and other opportunities that are deliberate and planned by the adult as a response to their knowledge of the child.”

Other authorities go further down the Rousseauian path. Early Childhood Australia suggest that, “As early childhood educators, we should resist the temptation to provide… ‘formal’ learning experiences…” Others suggest that formal learning is less effective than learning through play or even harmful. When you examine such claims, they are usually built on questionable foundations. If anything, the evidence points to the effectiveness of formal teaching methods when it comes to developing the foundations of academic skills.

I do not think anyone is advocating the removal of play from the early years setting. If we accept Geary’s theory of biologically primary and biologically secondary knowledge then play is absolutely essential to the development of primary knowledge – oral language, social skills and so on. However, it is likely to be far less effective than formal teaching for the development of reading, writing and mathematics. We could argue that these domains can wait. However, this seems like a recipe for magnifying the disadvantage of students who are not receiving this kind of input at home. Much is made of the fact that children in Finland do not start school until the age of seven, but we need to bear in mind that the Finnish language is far more regular than English and around a third of Finnish children can already read when they start school.

In my view, a lot of play with a little formal teaching would strike the right balance.

Interestingly, many people on Twitter don’t think I should have a view. Although my tweet was a criticism of ideas rather than people, many responses to it were of a personal nature.

The main theme of these comments is that I am not entitled to an opinion because I am not an early years teacher*. It even seems as if my opinion is offensive to some.

This is an interesting point and brings to mind two pieces by the essayist, Paul Graham. The first is one I have referred to in the past – How to Disagree. Here, Graham suggests:

“Saying that an author lacks the authority to write about a topic is a variant of ad hominem—and a particularly useless sort, because good ideas often come from outsiders. The question is whether the author is correct or not. If his lack of authority caused him to make mistakes, point those out. And if it didn’t, it’s not a problem.”

In this spirit, I would invite anyone to share their opinions on secondary maths teaching. In many cases, you are probably going to be more right than some of our supposed maths teaching experts. If you’re wrong, I will happily point out why you are wrong. Deal?

The other Graham essay is a discussion about how, in every society, there are some things that are true but that it is not acceptable to say. I think this may apply here.

Finally, this is not a new phenomenon. I started blogging and tweeting in 2012 and, at that time, anyone who criticised the progressivist-inspired orthodoxy in the bureaucracies that ran secondary schools or trained teachers would be told that they were attacking teachers, even though teachers were often the ones most unhappy with the orthodoxy. The outrage has subsided over time as people have tried out new ideas. I suspect the same will happen with early education.


*The tweet about what to put in my PhD is from an academic who is, according to his Twitter bio, ‘researching responsible leadership, values-led school development, theory and practice of dialogue’. Comments about my status as a PhD student happen surprisingly often and I can only read them as an attempt at invoking the academic hierarchy in order to put me back in my box.

7 thoughts on “Rousseauian Nonsense

  1. Voltaire was dismissive of Rousseau’s ‘Emile’. Rightly so. It’s rambling, speculative and somewhat incoherent. But Rousseau’s ideas caught on because of the problem he was trying to address.

    He pointed out that children who’d been formally educated were often weak, miserable and indecisive. Peasant children in contrast, were more likely to be strong, contented and to take on responsibilities at an early age. Rousseau, growing up in Calvinist Geneva and later moving to pre-revolution Catholic France, had seen the results of both, first-hand.

    Rousseau’s target in ‘Emile’ is not pedagogy as such, but rather arbitrary authoritarianism that flies in the face of nature, which is why his child-centred approach was so popular at the time and has remained so. He was essentially arguing that we need to educate with nature rather than against it – empiricism vs reason. This emerges clearly in the only section of the book Voltaire liked – ‘The Creed of the Savoyard Priest’. In it, Rousseau tackles Descartes head on. What follows is an incisive discussion about perception, cognition, reasoning, consciousness, truth, free will and the existence of religions. Relevant today and still well worth reading.

  2. Three comments:
    1. Thanks
    2. Those that argue that you are not an early years teacher should think, for example, about Louis Pasteur and Jonas Salk, both of whom reformed medicine and made our lives a lot safer but weren’t doctors!
    3. In Finland, preschool teachers have a bachelor in early childhood development and elementary school teachers have a master at the junction of developmental psychology, education, and the domains that they teach. This is quite different than most countries.

  3. Below Hilary Rose of the Times writes today:
    ” The least surprising discovery of my life is that I can’t do a new maths test for eight-year-olds. It’s on times tables so the questions are, not unreasonably, what is 9 x 6, or 7 x 8. Who knows? Certainly not me. I failed every maths exam I ever took — 9 per cent was my low point. So I stand shoulder to shoulder with teachers who want the test scrapped and worry that it will cause anxiety. I’m anxious just writing about it.

    What’s more, it turns out that I’m in good company. Charles Darwin once described maths as repugnant and Thomas Edison loathed the subject. So I have a suggestion. Don’t just ditch the test, abolish times tables. Actually, abolish maths altogether. ”

    Hackneyed but one person’s Secondary Maths nightmare clearly began at Primary. And in another UK paper we have endless tales of people (often celebrities) making dumb financial decisions with large figures – a while after secondary departure where you might think adult learning might kick in.

    In Scotland we have had CfE where the first cohort to have benefitted from practical focused maths were stumped,, and in tears, by an everyday exam problem of crocodile tries to get across a river for his lunch.

    I imagine the issue is the EYFS problem, as you describe. Kids like it being fun to learn. Maths is taught on the back of the tradition of numeracy being based around log tables, in my day. Babbage knew such were important hundreds of years ago but in the same way that literacy made a jump with printing we ought to move on from the realm of drudgery for those that lost interest about 3/4 of the way through day 2 of sums.

    Reviewing my, now grown up kids education at secondary I would say, in these parts, they succeeded in spite of the Maths teaching and were lucky not to be tested to destruction.

  4. This is an interesting thesis but it’s hard to imagine it’s true. Is Ashman seriously suggesting there are young teachers today in, let’s say, Melbourne based state schools who are unwittingly influenced by an 18th Century philosopher called Rousseau (even though they’ve never heard of him) to the extent that it shapes their pedagogical practice and can be observed by those in the know?
    It seems so implausible as to be almost crazy and conspiratorial. It’s a tantalizing idea but hard to believe.

    1. They will have heard of Rousseau, he is a staple of education courses. And his ideas have permeated Europe since the eighteenth century. I read Emile at university, along with Piaget’s work and input on Montessori when doing my PGCE (Emile was part of my study of French history). The idea of manipulating the child to be interested in what the teacher wants the child to learn is embedded in progressive practice. It is clear in planning lessons, particularly. I have always found it slightly creepy.

    2. Is Ashman seriously suggesting there are young teachers today in, let’s say, Melbourne based state schools who are unwittingly influenced by an 18th Century philosopher called Rousseau (even though they’ve never heard of him) to the extent that it shapes their pedagogical practice and can be observed by those in the know?

      It’s a lot more likely than the reverse — that modern teachers have no philosophy of teaching or learning and are not influenced by previous thinkers.

      So I think we can say that all teachers do have some pretty strong ideas of how we learn, and how we should teach. Those ideas may filter down without us having any idea of their origins, but they have origins nonetheless. Obviously they are rarely in the original form, but Greg isn’t suggesting that they are.

      Ideas that first received fame with Rousseau are a staple of modern progressive thought. Dewey is hugely influential in education, and he is in the tradition of Rousseau. Likewise Steiner, Waldorf, Bruner, etc. If you have any dog in the education fight, then you simply have to deal with Rouseauian ideas, because they permeate everywhere.

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