Archive for April, 2011



April 29, 2011

Previously (i.e. here) I argued that developing the intellect was about passing on an intellectual inheritance that, to adopt the terminology of Matthew Arnold, could be called “culture”. This implies engagement with a particular body of knowledge. However, there is a difficulty to deal with here about the nature of knowledge, one that came to the fore as a real concern in the nineteenth century, and has been used as an excuse for dumbing-down ever since. Probably the most famous description of this problem comes from Dickens’ (1854) ingenious portrait of the classroom:

 ‘Girl number twenty,’ said Mr Gradgrind, squarely pointing with his square forefinger, ‘I don’t know that girl. Who is that girl?’

‘Sissy Jupe, sir,’ explained number twenty, blushing, standing up, and curtseying.

‘Sissy is not a name,’ said Mr Gradgrind. ‘Don’t call yourself Sissy. Call yourself Cecilia.’

‘It’s father as calls me Sissy, sir,’ returned the young girl in a trembling voice, and with another curtsey.

‘Then he has no business to do it,’ said Mr Gradgrind. ‘Tell him he mustn’t. Cecilia Jupe. Let me see. What is your father?’

‘He belongs to the horse-riding, if you please, sir.’

Mr Gradgrind frowned, and waved off the objectionable calling with his hand.

‘We don’t want to know anything about that, here. You mustn’t tell us about that, here. Your father breaks horses, don’t he?’

‘If you please, sir, when they can get any to break, they do break horses in the ring, sir.’

‘You mustn’t tell us about the ring, here. Very well, then. Describe your father as a horsebreaker. He doctors sick horses, I dare say?’

‘Oh yes, sir.’

‘Very well, then. He is a veterinary surgeon, a farrier, and horsebreaker. Give me your definition of a horse.’

(Sissy Jupe thrown into the greatest alarm by this demand.)

‘Girl number twenty unable to define a horse!’ said Mr Gradgrind, for the general behoof of all the little pitchers. ‘Girl number twenty possessed of no facts, in reference to one of the commonest of animals! Some boy’s definition of a horse. Bitzer, yours.’

The square finger, moving here and there, lighted suddenly on Bitzer, perhaps because he chanced to sit in the same ray of sunlight which, darting in at one of the bare windows of the intensely white-washed room, irradiated Sissy. For, the boys and girls sat on the face of the inclined plane in two compact bodies, divided up the centre by a narrow interval; and Sissy, being at the corner of a row on the sunny side, came in for the beginning of a sunbeam, of which Bitzer, being at the corner of a row on the other side, a few rows in advance, caught the end. But, whereas the girl was so dark-eyed and dark-haired, that she seemed to receive a deeper and more lustrous colour from the sun, when it shone upon her, the boy was so light-eyed and light-haired that the self-same rays appeared to draw out of him what little colour he ever possessed. His cold eyes would hardly have been eyes, but for the short ends of lashes which, by bringing them into immediate contrast with something paler than themselves, expressed their form. His short-cropped hair might have been a mere continuation of the sandy freckles on his forehead and face. His skin was so unwholesomely deficient in the natural tinge, that he looked as though, if he were cut, he would bleed white.

‘Bitzer,’ said Thomas Gradgrind. ‘Your definition of a horse.’

‘Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.’ Thus (and much more) Bitzer.

‘Now girl number twenty,’ said Mr Gradgrind. ‘You know what a horse is.’

The problem is that once we accept the importance of knowledge then we open ourselves up to the claim that we only favour the learning by rote of lists of facts. Our notions of culture and knowledge have to be wider. Some part of education is indeed about storing information; but at least some part must be about thinking. In the words of R.S. Peters:

‘education’ must involve knowledge and understanding and some kind of cognitive perspective, which are not inert. [my italics]

It is a genuine problem, but does it invalidate the role of culture and knowledge in education? Well let’s return to Arnold (1869)’s view of culture. Arnold believed that culture was an answer to the problems of his time, but when I quoted him talking about this before I did not put it into context:

culture being a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world; and through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits [my italics]

Another great nineteenth century philosopher of education distinguished between “acquisition” (of facts) and a wider notion of “Knowledge”:

When I speak of Knowledge, I mean something intellectual, something which grasps what it perceives through the senses; something which takes a view of things; which sees more than the senses convey; which reasons upon what it sees, and while it sees; which invests it with an idea. It expresses itself, not in a mere enunciation, but by an enthymeme: it is of the nature of science from the first, and in this consists its dignity.

Newman (1873)

While we can indeed identify a nineteenth-century problem of an over-reliance on memorising facts, Arnold and Newman were still quite explicit about stating that the educated needed to acquire a store of information, one considerably more demanding than that required by schools today. Have a look at how Newman would conduct an interview for university entrance if you want to see how incredibly high his standards were. Since the nineteenth century the tide has turned. I doubt there is a state school educated child in the country who could pass Newman’s university entrance exam nowadays (and I hope to look at the extent of dumbing-down in a future blog post). By their standards there would be no problem in schools today of children learning too many facts.

However, even though I think over-emphasis memorisation is now a non-issue, relevant perhaps only to classes engaged in excessive preparation for exams, I mention this nineteenth century concern about memorisation because a parody of it is often the inevitable response to what I have outlined so far about the aim of education. Advocates of dumbing-down will apply the words “nineteenth century” or “Victorian” to our current education system in order to pretend we are still teaching largely by rote. Their claim often appears to be that almost any amount of knowledge, and certainly any explicit commitment to its value is a bad thing. The recall of information is to be rejected in favour of other intellectual virtues, however, unlike the Victorian critics of rote-learning, these virtues are not a complement to memorised facts, or a part of knowledge; they are to be taught instead of knowledge. They put forward aims of education that devalue all content. I have already discussed those aims that are not remotely academic. They also come up with aims that are academic, such as a) understanding b) thinking skills c) creativity d) autonomy and e) inspiration, but suggest that they can be divorced from content. We will be looking at these ideas, and their contribution to dumbing-down, in future blogposts.


Arnold, Matthew, Culture and Anarchy, 1869

Dickens, Charles, Hard Times,1854

Newman, John Henry, The Idea of a University, 1873

Peters, R.S. Ethics and Education, Allen and Unwin, 1966


The Denial Twist

April 8, 2011

The Local Schools Network wound me up again recently.

This wonderful article described something commonplace (schools hiding bad behaviour from OFSTED) and simply claimed that it couldn’t possibly happen. Here’s what Tom Bennett, the TES’s behaviour expert (and writer of The Behaviour Guru) had to say when I brought it to his attention:

It’s a curious thing, that someone would deny that this kind of thing happens. As it goes, I’ve seen it happen in schools. The idea that such a thing would be impossible because it would be a public scandal assumes that it would be viewed as scandalous by many schools. It isn’t- many schools would see this as absolutely normal practice. Right or wrong, it’s common. Denying it, is akin to imagining that MPs wouldn’t, say, fiddle their expense accounts, because that would be just dreadful.

It got me reflecting, again, on the Local Schools Network. As you may be aware they are an internet-based group of activists committed to the (in my view, fairly sensible) idea of supporting local schools. However, often they do this by pretending that the school system isn’t broken and by being as vicious and unpleasant as possible to anybody who reveals what is going on in our schools.

The one member of their team who you’d think might know better is Francis Gilbert, who is a state school teacher. He is as keen as the rest to attack anyone who blows the whistle on state schools. So when Charlie Carrol and Katherine Birbalsingh wrote books describing what goes on he told us:

The schools described in these books are not “normal” and it’s worrying that the authors have promoted them by pretending they are.

As evidence he cites OFSTED as an authority:

There are not many schools at the moment that are categorised as “unsatisfactory” by Ofsted, indicates that only 4% of schools were in 2009, which puts Birbalsingh’s failing school in a small minority of schools. For the Tories and Birbalsingh to suggest that all schools are like this is a total nonsense

In a post, which for the sake of Katharine’s privacy I won’t link to, he quoted from positive OFSTED reports about a school she worked at in order to suggest the experiences she described are not real and, in a disgraceful attempt to trawl for dirt, asked other people to send him information. When challenged, he told me that an OFSTED report was “a sound evidence base” and suggested I wasn’t a real teacher as I was commenting anonymously.

Anyway, I’m not going to attack Francis and the Local Schools Network (I think I did enough of that here), I’m just going to draw attention to what Francis was saying about The Behaviour Crisis just a few years before he got in with the LSN (and I am deliberately picking recent examples here rather than the books he wrote about teaching in the 1990s).

In 2009, after the GTC struck off whistleblower Angela Mason (and remember this is a person who used my anonymity against me),  he wrote:

What Mason suffered as a supply teacher is endured by many in the profession across the UK. Usually they are too scared to report poor behaviour because they will be blamed by the school’s management for letting it happen. In Mason’s case, the full of weight of a duplicitious educational establishment in the form of the General Teaching Council has tried to crush her message. Will any teacher who now admits that there is bad behaviour in their class be hauled in front of the GTC?

Also in 2009, the TES reported:

It was the steady drip-drip of poor behaviour that pushed Francis Gilbert over the edge. He had endured pupils throwing things at him, barricading his classroom and fighting with each other, but the day he grabbed a Year 7 boy by the arm and threw him out of the room, it was over a relatively trivial incident.

“He refused to do any work and persistently disrupted my lesson,” Mr Gilbert says. “What he had done was quite minor, but I was at the end of my tether, constantly dealing with his misbehaviour.”

Although the boy complained about being manhandled, he was persuaded by the deputy head not to take it further.

But Mr Gilbert recounts daily battles to try to get his pupils to learn. One class was studying Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge and after Mr Gilbert explained how Eddie was attracted to Catherine, his niece, the class started to chant “Eddie wants to fuck Catherine”, followed by throwing things, shouting and pushing the furniture against the door.

Mr Gilbert, who has chronicled his experiences of teaching in east London in the best-selling book I’m a Teacher, Get Me Out of Here, says when he raised the issue with senior managers he received neither support nor sympathy.

“They said it was my problem I couldn’t control the class and that I should improve my lessons, but no one came in to help – they told me to get on with it,” says Mr Gilbert, who now combines supply teaching with writing.

In 2005, he wrote in the Telegraph:

Every weekday morning, thousands of teachers go to work with a sick feeling in their stomach. I know, because I endured years of such stress as a teacher in various comprehensives around the country.

Why? The reason is simple. These teachers are entering classrooms in which the pupils are out of control. They are talking very loudly, perhaps fighting, and generally not listening. In a typical class, it probably takes at least 10 minutes to settle a class down, by which time a worksheet has been dished out. Some pupils make paper aeroplanes with it, the truculent rip it, the idle doodle on it, and a few actually follow the instructions and start the work. These pupils do so furtively, because being a “boff” is definitely not cool: work has to be done under the cover of nonchalance.

In the “New School Rules” (2007) he wrote:

Unfortunately far too few schools in the country are well managed …even the ones with good reputations.  If you think the discipline policy in your school looks vague and unclear, bear in mind that there may well be mayhem as a result. I have been attacked by many teachers and educationalists for highlighting the shoddy discipline in many of our schools. For me it is a national scandal. … A cover-up mentality occurs… don’t be deceived. It is a major problem. In a recent survey by Teachers TV 66% of teachers felt there was a discipline crisis in our schools.

In “Parent Power” (2008) he wrote the following about OFSTED whose judgements he now praises:

…if a school has been wonderfully politically correct, it can get away with a good report – but it may be a hotbed of bad behaviour and indiscipline.

In “Yob Nation”  (2006) he wrote:

I have been teaching for nearly 15 years in various comprehensives in London. During that time I have had classes that rioted, pupils smoking in my lessons, missiles thrown at me and ripped cans and spikes left on my chairs. … I am not an exception – that is normal life for a teacher these days. I know that even if you are a good teacher with interesting lessons, and effective discipline, you will have a hard time teaching in many of Britain’s schools, whether you are doing so in a deprived area or a middle-class one.

Interesting contrast, don’t you think?


The Porpoise of Education

April 1, 2011

The Porpoise Of Education


Hello, and welcome to The Porpoise of Education campaign. This is a holistic, interactive, empowering, unofficial successor to the Purpose of Education Campaign which aims to prepare for a forward-moving world by creating a synergy of the very confused.

We aim to publicise the work of people who are so confused about the purpose of either education, schools or teaching, who have so completely lost sight of the fact that education has a single purpose (to make people smarter),  that they could have talked about porpoises instead without anything of value being lost.

Here are the main sorts of confusion we will be looking for:

1) Confusing Aims and Virtues. We all know that it would be good if kids were happy in schools. We’d love them to be highly motivated. We like to be supportive and welcoming to those we teach. We like friendly, positive, mutually respectful relationships with our classes. We are proud of ourselves when children become interested in our subjects. We welcome it when our students want to learn about our subject in their own time, or continue studying it after they have left school. So the first classic type of confusion is to confuse any one of these factors which characterise education at its most satisfying, at its most virtuous, as the aim of education.

2) Confusing Knowledge with “Facts”. If you want to dumb down then the first place to begin is to assume that there is no “powerful knowledge”, that there is nothing worth knowing for its own sake and there is nothing that it is necessary to know in order to think effectively. There are only “facts”: dry lists to be memorised. While such lists do exist (times tables or irregular verbs spring to mind) it’s hard to believe that any secondary teachers in state schools spend more than a tiny fraction of their time teaching them (and most teachers I know use games and quizzes, or interactive teaching of one sort or another when they do so). Anyone who raises this straw man has either just been woken up from 100 years of suspended animation or is simply attacking the very concept of knowledge.

3) Confusing Accountability Measures and Purposes. This is more usually framed in order to create a straw man. The argument will be made that the purpose of education or schooling is not “to pass tests” or “get grades”. Now this is arguing against a point nobody would make. Even people who put the most insane over-emphasis on tests (if you think England’s bad for this, have a look at what’s happening in the US) don’t believe that doing well in tests is an end in itself. The purpose of a test is to measure learning (or sometimes to encourage learning) and it should go without saying that even the most fearsome advocates of tests are still concerned that learning is taking place and, if given a choice between learning and testing would choose the former.

4) Forgetting Large Chunks of History. Our education system has developed over decades. It was decided in the 1940s roughly who would be taught. It was decided in the 1960s how they would be taught. It was decided in 1988 what they would be taught. Remarkably, there is no shortage of people who seem to think our education system is Victorian or even older. Presumably this is because warmed up ideas from the early twentieth century sound more modern if we pretend the twentieth century never happened.

5) Believing there is No Continuity between Past and Future. All education must be about the future not the past. Therefore, anything said in the past about education must have been wrong and anything done in the past must be wrong. There is no discussion to be had of Newman or Arnold. The prophets of education must be contemporary figures such as Sir Ken Robinson or Sugatra Mitra. These two may both be recycling ideas from the de-schooling and free-schooling movements of the 1970s but they talk about science so they must be cutting edge, right? And we all know that new ideas are always better than old ideas because in the past people were stupid. And don’t worry, it doesn’t matter if we forget all lessons from the past, because in the future everyone will be doing jobs that don’t exist yet.

6) Confusing Institutions and Aims. The worst and most annoying way to opt out of intelligent discussion about education is to pretend that all existing institutions and their features are arbitrary, or possibly even ideologically motivated. Classrooms? Timetables? Teachers? Who needs them? They are just inventions of “the man” that are there to indoctrinate, constrain or perpetuate injustices. Children should teach themselves, preferably while sat in a field. That would work, wouldn’t it? The problem is that the usefulness of institutions can only be established when there is agreement on what they are trying to achieve. If people cannot understand what the point of education is, then they cannot analyse whether institutions are suited to that aim or not. The rest is just bluster.

If you wish to contribute to the Porpoise of Education campaign then simply find an example of somebody making one of these elementary mistakes and post a link in the comments below. Let me start you off with an example of Number 4. This blogger managed to take the pseudo-history of education to a new level by trying to date our education system back to the Romans.

%d bloggers like this: