Michael Gove and the return to ‘chalk-and-talk’

I would really urge watching Michael Gove at the RSA on ‘What education is for’. There’s quite some possibility that this talk will act as one of the first big salvos in what is shaping up to be an increasingly divisive debate between the parties on education ahead of the General Election.

It has galvanised certain bloggers into action, to be sure. This post was emailed to me: it packs some important and convincing punches, but it is the tone – unbridled concern – that is the most noteworthy.

This paragraph is good:

No, for the purposes of this diatribe, let’s just focus on his spurious argument that not teaching history in chronological order, and depriving kids access to Cicero and Wagner is some social injustice, perpetrated through the ‘tyranny of relevance’. First, it’s a fallacy that ‘relevance’ automatically means hip-hop, Carol Ann Duffy, and pandering to what kids like, rather than ‘the very best of what has been thought and written’.

Matthew Taylor could well become one of the forefront commentators in this education debate, and his plea (best expressed here) that the debate is an open one without recourse to knee-jerk reactions is surely one we should all support: and is why I have set up this blog. His open letter to Michael Gove, still unanswered to the best of my knowledge, raises such important questions, and is posted below. These are the inferences that Matthew Taylor draws from Michael Gove’s talk – what education is for, in conservative eyes:

1. Curriculum content should contain the classical canon of history, literature and scientific knowledge and we should pull back from seeking to make content more relevant to the contemporary concerns and lives of young people. Young people should be discouraged from pursuing newer or non traditional subjects like media studies, which are not seen as credible by the best universities.

2. The curriculum should be delivered though traditional subject disciplines and not through approaches emphasising cross cutting themes and competencies, such as, for example, the RSA’s Opening Minds.

3. (Something I heard emphasised by your number two, Nick Gibb), the practice of the best schools shows traditional chalk and talk forms of pedagogy are superior to practical, project based, forms of learning.

4. Schools should focus much more on the core activity of imparting knowledge. Children’s wider development is best enhanced through extra curricular activities such as schools clubs and societies but not through ‘teaching’ life skills or well-being.

5. Schools should be institutions that are primarily or even exclusively about learning and should not be required to engage in the wider delivery of children’s or community services.

6. Rather than blurring the divide between academic and vocational learning we should assert it, with, for example, 14-19 Diplomas restricted to vocational content.

7. Implicitly, strategies to widen participation in learning should not include developing forms of content and levels of assessment which enable more children to succeed: more should rise to the bar, the bar shouldn’t be moved to allow more to jump it.

Video Games and Children: first salvo

I’m going to start fondly at home: with dysTalk.

Last October, Tom Maher gave a talk for us on Video Games and Children. It was an elegant and convincing argument against their use from the perspective of a teacher, and shall form a perfect opening for our debate.

His allegations:

1. They take up children’s time and make them exhausted.

2. They affect children’s capacity to learn by encouraging in them a desire for “immediate response.” The assumption is that because children can change screen when they’re bored gaming – and can’t when bored in class – they are less likely to have the resilience of attention needed to stick at trickier topics/subjects.

His suggestions are moderate – and surely sensible:

1. A more comprehensive debate with the industry, a la the film industry and the junk food industry.

2. More awareness for parents as to the issues; and that computer games be brought out of the bedroom and into a family room.

Benjamin Franklin’s education

I’m re-reading John Taylor Gatto’s The Underground History of American Education, a rollicking read, and feel compelled to quote the passages on Benjamin Franklin’s education. Frustratingly, JTG is quite footnote-shy so I’m going to have to take his word for it.

Indirectly, this provides early anecdotal evidence for the key role parents play in a child’s upbringing. As Gatto says, A major part of Franklin’s early education consisted of studying father Josiah, who turns out, himself, to be a pretty fair example of education without schooling”.

This is on Franklin’s pop:

He had an excellent constitution…very strong…ingenious…could draw prettily…skilled in music…a clear pleasing voice…played psalm tunes on his violin…a mechanical genius…sound understanding…solid judgment in prudential matters, both private and public affairs. In the latter, indeed, he was never employed, the numerous family he had to educate and the straitness of his circumstances keeping him close to his grade; but I remember well his being frequently visited by leading people, who consulted him for his opinion in affairs of the town or of the church…and showed a great deal of respect for his judgment and advice…frequently chosen an arbitrator between contending parties.

This bit is brilliant too; again about Franklin snr:

At his table he liked to have as often as he could some sensible friend or neighbor to converse with, and always took care to start some ingenious or useful topic for discourse, which might tend to improve the minds of his children. By this means he turned our attention to what was good, just, and prudent in the conduct of life; and little or no notice was ever taken of what related to the victuals on the table…I was brought up in such perfect inattention to those matters as to be quite indifferent what kind of food was set before me.

The rest of Gatto’s chapter on Franklin is well worth reading; his conclusion will do for now:

Josiah drew, he sang, he played violin—this was a tallow chandler with sensitivity to those areas in which human beings are most human; he had an inventive nature (“ingenious”) which must have provided a constant example to Franklin that a solution can be crafted ad hoc to a problem if a man kept his nerve and had proper self-respect. His good sense, recognized by neighbors who sought his judgment, was always within earshot of Ben. In this way the boy came to see the discovery process, various systems of judgment, the role of an active citizen who may become minister without portfolio simply by accepting responsibility for others and discharging that responsibility faithfully.

A Fresh Start

With the optimism of the summer and a new academic year, this blog is going to see some changes.

  • 4 posts a week,
  • A bit more direction

I’ve felt myself lurch ever closer to the ‘club bore’ on matters of education; this blog (rather than the ears of bored friends) shall become by receptacle instead. Education is shaping up to be one of the key battlegrounds ahead of the election next year. I intend this to be a personal archive for my own reference – and I hope a fertile resource for people coming at this stuff fresh.

I’m going to stick to FIVE broad threads to keep the focus even tighter.

  1. Good Teaching and Curricula: to include the debate between subject-based “Chalk and Talk” teaching championed by the Conservative Party vs. competency/skills-based learning.
  2. Discipline: taking in behavioural management, drug policy, corporal punishment debates etc.
  3. Selectivity: grammar schools, streaming etc.
  4. Motivation/self-esteem: how far are schools implicated in this?
  5. Impact of computer games/internet use on children and their receptiveness to learning/ their outlook in life. This might be renamed, as I want it to take in the ADHD/Ritalin debate.

Though I am very ready to be persuaded, here is my pithy-as-possible starting position for each:

1. Good Teaching: Matthew Taylor seems spot on here: it’s a false dichotomy. As Guy Claxton has shown, we shouldn’t have to choose between The Tudors or Media Studies.

2. Discipline: the debate has a larger significance. Should schools should be run on utilitarian principles (prioritizing the experience of the many even if that means failing the few)? I want to learn more about Steve Heppell’s Not School.

3. Selectivity seems part of the same debate. At the moment, I am very much pro-selectivity. As a classroom teacher, I didn’t see my weaker students benefiting from the strongest – nor vice versa. I’m ready to be proved wrong.

4. I quote Prof. Claxton in complete agreement: “Too often children see school as posing another set of challenges, rather than as an opportunity to develop the sorts of resources needed to deal with those challenges.”

5. Hmmmm.. a change of mind every day..