The title of a panel discussion at the Wellington College Festival of Education last Saturday was “What do we want our children to know?”
I’d been warned beforehand. This would be a rough ride.
When there are so many excellent speakers at the Festival of Education it’s with some reluctance that one goes to such a session, but there was very good reason for doing so. It’s easy and comfortable to be surrounded by like-minded folk who agree with your own philosophy of education. It’s essential that you do meet with people who have similar attitudes and values to education that inform, consolidate and develop your own thinking. It’s also extremely affirming and encouraging to know that your own views are held by those that you regard positively. However, it’s also important to hear and to think about opposing points of view. In doing so, we either affirm our own standpoint more strongly or we adjust our thoughts in the light of something that’s been demonstrated or said.
Which is why I chose to listen to Toby Young, Lindsay Johns, Mark Thompson and Anastasia de Waal addressing the question above. The polarisation of thinking in education is now a very serious concern.
“What do we want our children to know?” was the question, not “what skills do we want our children to develop?” or “what do our children want to know?” or “what do we want our children to understand?”
Toby Young was the first to speak and launched straight into one of his favourite sound bites; that child-centred education is balls. He continued with his diatribe by adopting the Gradgrind position of facts, facts, facts and denounced the notion that children should be encouraged to think for themselves – which is what he does when he criticises the notion of child-centred education. He said that we should stop the “nonsense” of allowing nursery children the freedom to “play” and explained how his next Free School (which has already been approved by the Secretary of State) would start to “teach” children “knowledge” at the age of 2. (NB As if those who use child-centred, needs-led approaches don’t enable and encourage children to expand their knowledge base.) He explained that in his view the new national curriculum was excellent, whereas the previous one had focused too much on skills, too little on knowledge.
And here lies the first point of contention. Clearly Mr Young has never had to teach the “old” National Curriculum, which was just as crammed with knowledge and was written in a similarly didactic way to its proposed successor. Mr Young ought to know that the previous national curriculum may have been written under the auspices of a Labour government, but it certainly wasn’t “socialist” and it certainly wasn’t “progressive” and it certainly wasn’t “skills-based” – in our opinion.
The meeting moved on with contributions from the rest of the panel, including Lindsay Johns, from the “Leaders of Tomorrow” programme in Southwark which aims to raise achievement for young black people. Mr Johns said that our young people should be “inspired by love and guided by knowledge” and suggested that we needed our young black people to study more “dead white men” poetry and prose in conjunction with positive encouragement to eradicate “ghetto grammar” ( – a truly appalling and judgemental phrase, in my opinion.)
As a small aside, we should say that encouraging higher aspirations for young people is clearly laudable, as were the origins of this organisation, established by an ex-colleague of mine, Vallin Miller, who was dedicated to developing the whole child through a child-centred approach that nurtured both their leadership skills and also encouraged a love of learning. Vallin recognised that some of our disaffected youngsters needed a belief in themselves. He worked consistently on developing co-operation skills, speaking and listening skills, entrepreneurial skills, mentoring skills, collaboration skills – as well as encouraging young people to re-engage with formal education. Without this skills approach and his consideration of the interests and needs of the child, Vallin wouldn’t have had the success that he undoubtedly had.
Thankfully, Anastasia de Waal offered more balance to the proceedings by rightly pointing out that we’re in danger of developing a false dichotomy between “fact” and “skills” or “prescription” versus “autonomy”. She raised her concerns about a facts-driven curriculum that took no account of a child’s circumstances.
So here’s the real issue. This whole argument is pointless. What we want is balance and reason, which is something that appears to elude Mr Young with his wilful and clear misunderstanding of what child-centred education is.
Let’s consider his claim that child-centred education is balls. It seems that Toby Young is under the impression that child-centred education is an undirected free-for-all. Another so-called “traditionalist”, Tom Bennett describes child-centred education as “believing that the child is the principal generator of their own learning; that broadly children will default to a learning habit, and the educator is only needed to stimulate and facilitate it”. He continues to say that “it sometimes works with small groups of very young, well behaved children, but the principle is lost when scaled.”
This is so wrong, and it’s incredibly insulting to be accused of not teaching, not caring, not encouraging, not understanding how a child learns – alongside the subliminal suggestion that my child-centred practice has been lazy and detrimental to the very many children whom I’ve taught.
As I said during the meeting, specifically to Toby Young, “Your comment about child-centred education is your opinion not based on fact. I respect your right to have opposing views to mine so please have the courtesy to do the same for me. Why is there a constant fight between skills and knowledge? Surely, sitting here in Wellington College, where the focus is on life skills, personal development, wellbeing and knowledge, it’s evident that traditional knowledge-based learning and pupil-centred skills acquisition works simultaneously, and if you don’t respect my views on this then please have the courtesy to respect the philosophy of our hosts (Anthony Seldon and Wellington College).”
It didn’t come out in those exact words, since I was so incensed and therefore somewhat nervous and struggling to be articulate, but the general point had to be made. People like Toby Young criticise child-centred approaches to learning without appearing to fully understand the concept. Please note, I am not trying to suggest that I know precisely what Toby Young is thinking, which is why I use the word “appear” or “seems” throughout this writing. This is my opinion not fact.
There are some in the past and possibly some in the present who give “child-centred” learning a bad name. In certain schools there may well have been a free-for-all, where learning was completely directed by the child and not the teacher, where phonics and multiplication tables, for example, were completely thrown out, and where there was an expectation that all children would learn through some sort of osmosis. In my opinion, this methodology had as many flaws in it as a completely knowledge-based didactic form of education, and is not something that I ever practiced or encouraged others to practice – yet I am still firmly of the opinion that my own teaching utterly embedded the principle of putting the child at the heart of their own learning – a child-centred approach.
Never in my entire career have I stopped considering the needs of every individual child in my care, and have always planned learning according to individual needs. Never once have I walked into a classroom without a clue what learning I was intending to cover throughout the day. Never once did I not have clear learning objectives very firmly established in my mind.
Having said that, there have been plenty of times when I have actively encouraged children and young people to think for themselves, where I have been directed by their needs rather than the prescription of a curriculum, when I have gone “off timetable” in order to look at the complexities and intricacies of some event that was meaningful to the learner.
Examples of this occured when the Berlin Wall came down, when Nelson Mandela was released from prison, and when Terry Waite and his fellow captives in Beirut were similarly released. My children were interested and so I took into school a copy of every newspaper in the shop. We looked at the content of each story. We considered the differing opinions. We developed the skill of distinguishing fact from opinion. We wrote our own interpretations of the stories. We researched the causes and the histories of these events – without the aid of the internet. They collaborated. They also worked individually. We shared. I say “we” because I joined in the activities and the writing too, modelling as well as being an enabler, a facilitator and a teacher.
Child-centred education has to be carefully planned. It may not be the easiest form of pedagogy, but for me it’s the most rewarding. Contrary to Mr Bennett’s idea that it can only work in small groups with young, well behaved children, it’s a form of education that is easily transferrable to whole-class situations with older pupils. I know this because I’ve done exactly that. I pride myself also on the fact that my children were academically stretched and successful because they wanted to learn and they enjoyed learning.
It’s clear we need to say more about child-centred education in subsequent posts, but before this particular post becomes too long I sincerely, and possibly naively, hope that people like Toby Young will finally realise that all education should be child-centred – should be personalised – and that good teachers also recognise there are bodies of skills and knowledge that support young people throughout their lives, enabling them to use learned knowledge wisely and effectively.