The new traditionalists

In last week’s TES, on the contents page there was a little ad for an article in the next edition. It said:

A glimpse of the future – Some academies and free schools are abandoning the traditional model of the teacher as the font of all knowledge.  Instead they act as a ‘facilitator’ of the student’s personalised learning.

I read things like this all the time, and they really, really annoy me. Can we have evidence, please, that ‘the traditional model of the teacher as the font of all knowledge’ is in fact present in a majority, or even a substantial minority, of schools today? Is it so dominant that it is possible for us to speak of ‘abandoning’ it?

In actual fact, the traditional model of the teacher as the font of all knowledge has been under attack intellectually for at least two centuries.  Rousseau criticised it in Emile; or an Education. Dickens criticised it in Hard Times and (less often mentioned this one) Our Mutual Friend.  In the 20th and 21st century, this traditional model has been under attack not just theoretically but practically.  Dewey and Piaget criticised the teacher-centric model and proposed concrete alternatives to it in the late 19th/early 20th century. AS Neill’s Summerhill was founded in 1921.  Dartington Hall was founded in 1926. Nor were these reforms confined to a few eccentric private schools. The six government-commissioned Hadow reports into primary education of the 1920s and 30s did not promote the idea of the teacher as the font of all knowledge. Instead, they argued that a good school ‘is not a place of compulsory instruction, but a community of old and young, engaged in learning by cooperative experiment’. Finally, and perhaps most influentially, the Piaget-inspired Plowden Report of 1967 completely bought into the idea that the child should be the co-constructor of learning and the teacher should merely facilitate.

Since Plowden, these views have in fact been the dominant view in classrooms and teacher training colleges up and down the country. Many classroom activities are, directly or indirectly,  inspired by these precepts. Ofsted approve of them. In my previous post, I analysed a May 2011 report by Ofsted which gave detailed descriptions of a range of ‘excellent’ English lessons. I don’t think one of these lessons involved the teacher being the font of all knowledge. Plenty involved children creating their own knowledge and teachers standing by facilitating. For example:

The different activities were as follows. One group was led by a pupil selected by the other pupils. This was a productive exercise in enlightened decision-making: ‘We’re not judging people. We choose a leader to be happy. We give a turn to everybody.’ As pupils took turns to read aloud, the leader’s role was to encourage others and to clarify, predict and question. Pupils shared ideas and knowledge, noting things down in their logbooks. As ‘teacher’, the group’s leader took on considerable responsibility. If anyone else seemed stuck, it was his or her role to suggest an answer.

So my question is, where is this alleged traditional model that these academies are abandoning? It is a figment of their imagination. They are abandoning something that has long been abandoned. Indeed, it has been abandoned so comprehensively that there is little institutional memory of what traditional teaching actually is – witness, in my previous post, Ofsted’s confusion about what grammar is.

Now, an academy or free school that is trying to resurrect traditional forms of teaching. That really would be original.

If you have any other examples of newspaper articles or blogs that suggest most schools teach ‘traditional’ curriculums using ‘traditional’ methods, then please post them in the comments. I find there are lots and lots – it would be good to record how widespread this delusion is.


61 thoughts on “The new traditionalists

    1. The Wing to Heaven Post author

      Good! We will turn it into a new Godwin’s Law! As an online discussion about education grows longer, the probability that someone will speak enthusiastically about abandoning traditional modes of education approaches 1.

      Is it an example of Godwin’s Law to use Godwin’s Law as an analogy?

  1. Kristopher Boulton

    “Indeed, it has been abandoned so comprehensively that there is little institutional memory of what traditional teaching actually is.”

    I actually like this line because, as I attempted to think of more ‘traditional’ pedagogy in practice that I’ve seen, I realised I didn’t have a comprehensive model in my mind of what constitutes the traditional model against which to compare my experience…

    Still, there are plenty of examples of teachers simply showing pupils how to answer maths questions, and then pupils answer maths questions. In fact, in my limited experience I’d argue that’s still the dominant mode of teaching maths (for better or worse). To clarify then, is it that you’re claiming that it has been fully abandoned by schools up and down the country? That discovery learning and facilitation are the predominant, and teacher exposition no longer exists? Or are you saying only that it has been abandoned by the ‘higher’ establishment, our institutions of teacher training and monitoring?

    Also thought it a good time to chuck in this video. I think it’s the best example I’ve seen of ‘traditional pedagogy’, in a non-traditional setting. Despite Dan Walton making the claim that ‘sometimes it’s better for the kids to discover certain ideas for themselves’ (note that in the one moment of ‘discovery’ learning – what I would argue was really just presenting them with an interesting and difficult problem to solve – only two out of around fifteen pupils succeeded), the reality is that he carefully breaks down the ideas to be learnt, and didactically teaches them what to do at every step, but in such a clever and engaging manner that you could almost miss it.

    1. The Wing to Heaven Post author

      This is really interesting, thanks Kris. I’ll watch the video and respond to that later.

      I do think that on the whole, the two subjects which have suffered least from progressivism are Maths and MFL. This is because in both cases, it’s actually extraordinarily difficult to strip away the essential knowledge from each subject. It’s also because in most cases kids turn up with a very limited or non-existent understanding of each subject. This isn’t true of other subjects. For example, pupils turn up at school able to speak and listen already. This makes it too easy for English teachers to assume firstly that pupils will naturally pick up reading and writing the way they have picked up speaking and listening, and secondly that it is OK to focus only on what they speak and listen to already. These two assumptions are false, as E.D. Hirsch shows, but they are very plausible assumptions. In French you can’t focus on what they know about French already, because most kids don’t know anything.

      The ways in which Maths education has suffered, I would argue, is that not enough of a focus is placed on learning the very important basics – and on learning them so well that they become automatic. Thus, as you’ve explained to me before, pupils move on to tackling more complex problems before they have fully mastered ratios. If they need ratios to solve the more complex problem, then they won’t be able to solve the more complex problem – not because they don’t understand the more complex problem, but because their understanding of ratios is faulty or incomplete or simply not ‘automatic’. So if we were looking at ways in which progressivism has affected Maths education, then one main way would be in the way it always assumes that the most important things we can be teaching kids are the ‘higher order’ skills, without sufficient appreciation of the fact that the higher order skills are the function of possessing lots of well-organised lower-order knowledge. Linked to this would be the way that progressive education allows a pupil to move to the next stage of education even if they haven’t fully mastered the previous stage.

      1. teachingbattleground

        I think the above description is about right. I would suggest that in maths the difference between progressives and traditionalists at the chalkface (as opposed to in university departments of education) are:

        a) the extent to which calculators are used rather than mental arithmetic

        b) how focused teachers are on fluency and drill, particularly for times tables and number bonds.

        A lot of battles are fought simply over how many questions it is acceptable for a child to do in order to learn something.

      2. The Wing to Heaven Post author

        This is very interesting. I recognise a lot of these experiences, and that is because I think maths and grammar teaching have a lot in common. Willingham says something interesting on this point in Why Don’t Students Like School – that very often pupils stop learning about something and teachers stop teaching them because they think they’ve covered that material, or that the pupil knows a lot about that topic. They might, but they still don’t know it well enough.

        Another problem you face if you try to emphasise fluency and drill is that you run up against Ofsted’s injunctions about ‘making progress’. As you have pointed out, what Ofsted want and what schools think they want are often two different things. But certainly many senior managers have got the idea that Ofsted want to see pupils making progress in every lesson. This is often interpreted as learning something new in every lesson. But for important concepts you need to spend a lot of time revising and drilling. Whenever I teach pupils a new sentence construction, I spend a relatively short amount of time actually introducing the new concept – and then quite a lot of time practising it and consolidating that knowledge. But Ofsted do seem to have the idea that in every single lesson you should be introducing a new concept, and the pupils should be mastering it completely in that single lesson.

        I would be interested to know if this is a problem you have in Maths too – or maybe Ofsted are different there.

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  3. Annaliese Briggs

    Articles that suggest we’re abandoning ‘traditional’ teaching practice annoy me too.

    William Stewart’s piece in this week’s TES (I’ve struggled to find a link. Watch this space…) presents Cornwallis Academy’s new site, full of ‘learning plazas’ and ‘democratised space’, as a ‘departure’ from teacher-led practice.

    Chris Gerry, the ‘brains behind the academies’, doesn’t want to ‘stick to the industrial model of one teacher to one class with a teacher at the front and the students receiving.’ This school offers ‘tomorrow’s future today’ (whatever that means); it’s dressed up as a new and radical shift in thinking on schooling. I read articles about this kind of thing everyday. Cornwallis Academy is a variation on a theme. It’s not radical. It’s not doing anything very different. If anything, Cornwallis Academy is accelerating on a route we’ve been plodding along for quite some time. Real change requires turning around and heading in the other direction.

  4. Annaliese Briggs

    I received yet another announcement from Learning Without Frontiers heralding the beginning of a ‘Learning Revolution’. These emails have been littering my junk box for well over a year now.

    “Drawing upon real world examples and programmes Stephen Heppell discusses the impact of exponential technological change on learning calling for a greater involvement and participation in the design of learning and learning environments by the learners themselves.”

    I don’t know what’s worse: learning to learn, or learning how to learn how to learn.

  5. bloomsburylibrary

    I’m not a teacher, though I do work in education (postgrads) – but I have been a bit disappointment that my 2 chidlren didn’t learn poetry at school – this turned to horror now that asdboy (year 5) has been set the task of learning a poem for “victorian day” – apparently having to learn a poem and recite it is an amusing illustration of school in the olde days. I wrote a rant in the homework [oh no sorry homelearning] book and then deleted half of it… it’s not the poor class teacher’s fault – well not totally anyway!

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    1. The Wing to Heaven Post author

      Lectures from the front of the room! Ha ha ha! And the old canard about note-taking being passive – note-taking requires an awful lot of mental activity. I wish people would stop confusing physical activity with mental activity.

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  9. teachingbattleground

    “Instead of thinking that I am “The Teacher”—the knowledge-giver who stands up front in total control—instead of that traditional pedagogy, we need a 21st-century vision of teaching, where there is less teacher talk and more student talk, where what I’m doing is thinking about how I am going to pull the most out of these kids”

  10. teachingbattleground

    “In the history of learning, we find that learning is doomed, not so much to repeat itself, but to remain stuck in an ancient groove, that of simple lectures and classroom learning. This is still the dominant method of delivery, yet there is little or no evidence to show that it is effective. Almost everything in the theory and psychology of learning tells us that it is wrong to rely so heavily on this single method of delivery. The history of learning theory has had to be ignored to accommodate this lazy approach to practice. It seems to have been willingly ignored to protect, not learners, but the bad habits of those who teach… I have argued that there has been more pedagogic progress in the last 10 years than the last 1000 years but we could just as well say the last 2,500 years, going back to the Greeks.”

  11. teachingbattleground

    “The creative-agency metaphor is particularly useful for thinking about the possibilities of new technologies since it stands in stark contrast to the dominant metaphor of schooling: the factory, where a standardized curriculum is delivered as efficiently as possible to groups of students treated as uniform receptacles. The fundamental question for education technology in the century ahead is this: Will we use new tools to rethink the purposes and structure of education, or will we simply use technology to boost efficiency in our factories?”

  12. teachingbattleground

    Classrooms were designed for lecture and crowd control, with the teacher as the central figure of knowledge and authority. The teacher had knowledge to impart through direct instruction and the current classroom structure works pretty well for this. This basic classrooms structure is the same, though in some schools, the chalkboard has been replaced by the interactive “Smart Board.”

  13. teachingbattleground

    “Yet, in today’s schools – both in the U.S. and from what I observed on sabbatical in SE Asia – we seem to place a premium on and emphasize standardized curriculum, rote learning of facts, memorization, and high-stakes testing. Although this might sound like a gross oversimplification and unfair stereotype, America’s schools continue to focus considerable time and resources on the learning and recall of information. America’s schools ask our students to define, describe, identify, know, match, name, recall and recognize information, when viewed from Bloom’s well-known taxonomy of learning objectives. Schools demand less of students in terms of higher-level cognitive skills, including understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating and creating.”

  14. teachingbattleground

    A document for downloading here explaining taxonomies.

    “Our understanding of learning should no longer be confined to the traditional notion of knowledge transfer within the familiar setting of lectures where students passively and uncritically absorb facts and information handed down by teachers.”

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  16. teachingbattleground

    “For more than a century, the whole point of schooling has been to restrict the curriculum, specify the required content, and limit the entry points to it — often by means of a watered-down, already obsolete text, mediated by a classroom manager whose task is to transmit the subject matter to 30 or more individuals of diverse backgrounds, experiences, interests, and resources.”

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  18. teachingbattleground

    “One hundred and fifty years ago, we began to have schools in part because that’s where the information was and teachers were the mechanism by which students accessed that information. Those conditions prevailed for a very long time. But now — thanks to the Internet, mobile phones, social media and so on — students have the same access to information that teachers do. That means that a teacher’s job isn’t to transmit the information, but to equip students with ways to analyze the information, make sense of the information, evaluate the information. What’s more, it has begun to change what happens inside the classroom itself as more teachers move to flipping the classroom — providing the lectures electronically and use class time for hands on work that computers can’t replicate.”

  19. teachingbattleground

    “The more we learn about learning, the further we seem to be getting away from the primary teaching lessons of the past. Lectures, although necessary, are no longer the focus of teaching methodology. Today’s methods seem to be relying on more collaborative and authentic learning. Actually doing and making, as opposed to having descriptions and theories delivered by lectures, is a shift, which is taking place in education today. Critical thinking, always addressed to some extent in learning, is now becoming more prominent in education.”

  20. Karl Mason

    I feel that I have to provide a defence of a few things. I class myself as a progressive teacher, I teach mathematics. I use many different techniques at many different times, I will use a ‘discovery’ method of learning if I feel it has an edge on actually telling the students – one area of this is angles in parallel lines. I have found that the learning seems more secure this way – a result bourne out in a 6 week later test for my classes. When I want to introduce Pythagoras’ Theorem, I give a question that is unsolvable by their current techniques – which triangle has the biggest perimeter – to force them into a stuation where they have to seek the knowledge that is missing.

    I also consider myself as progressive in the way that I get the students to work. I don’t really use ‘individual work’ very frequently. I do a lot of collaboration (which is markedly different from group work) to give the pupils a chance to make sense of the knowledge that I give them. However this surely is the point, surely all knowledge must come from those that know, mustn’t it?

    Finally I ask this – a point I have never seen answered in a way that I can say, yes, thanks, you are correct – given that you _know_ that knowledge is the base of everything, given that you _know_ telling students and drilling students is the way to embed knowledge and given the work of Dweck, Syed, Ericsson et al have shown that purposeful practice is the most important thing for mastery – why don’t students going through a ‘knowledge based curriculum’ (a curriculum that loves exams) all get A*/100% etc?

  21. teachingbattleground

    “Developed by Frederick Winslow Taylor, this management model, which sought to measure and maximize human performance took over the imagination and practices of education early in the 20th century. The “efficiency movement” brought with it a particular version of effectiveness, which migrated from the factory floor to the classroom through standardized procedures; standardized times for the accomplishment of results; sequenced actions (each which could be isolated from the others); and rewards, punishments and methods for teaching the “workers” to adhere to these standards. Taylor and Thorndike’s models of schooling also defined teacher effectiveness. Relationships between teachers and students were seen as secondary to the importance of teachers managing the class by stressing punctuality, obedience and time on task and delivering information in a timely, efficient manner according to a prescribed schedule established far beyond the classroom. Learning goals were standardized, simple and invariant. Over the past 20 years we have learned that this model of learning is fundamentally flawed…”

    This is possibly the worst yet. The whole booklet.

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