The Great Conversation (I’m looking for a pupil!)

I am looking for a school-age student who has the time and inclination to read a Great Book with me online via Skype. Please leave a comment or email me if of interest.

The idea is expanded in this link, which begins as follows…

“The Good Books are food for a wholesome imagination. They are well-written. They introduce young people to characters they will never forget. They soar beyond easy cynicism or nihilism. They soar beyond the sweaty halls of politics. They may well have villains in them, there may be warfare, but there will not be the creepy relish for bloodshed—no itch for the base, the sick, the bizarre, the filthy, the evil. We know where to find these Good Books. They are everywhere, or they used to be. It almost does not matter in what order the children read them, and many of them can be read again and again, and are as satisfying for grownups as they are for the wide-eyed little ones.”

Professor Anthony Esolen

 

Certain books are as pertinent to our day as they were to the day in which they were written. They are so significant that their influence continues to be felt in our writing, thought and conversation today. Reading these books brings great joy and wisdom, but being part of this “great conversation through the ages” also gives a tremendous cultural leg-up. And for one of the first times in history… most of these books are free!

Inspired by the work of  E D Hirsch, which shows not only the great cultural benefit of the knowledge contained in such works but also the cultural deficit suffered by those who remain ignorant of them, we feel there is an opportunity to bring these books to children – especially to those who might not otherwise encounter them – in a considered sequence. We have chosen 56 books – an achievable 4 per year for children from the ages of 5 – 18 – and arranged them in a rough age order below. A link to a free version of the book is also included.

Such selections are necessarily arbitrary and are further compromised by their inevitable Western and English-language bias. It is important to note that, for the reasons noted above, they have been chosen for their cultural, more than their literary, significance. They can be read independently or – especially with the younger ages in mind – with the aid of a tutor, teacher or parent.

Read the selection here.

Captain Raindrop – Interview with Rhidian Llewellyn

Last week I began a part-time project to interview retired prep school teachers about their teaching methods.

My first subject was Rhidian Llewellyn. Rhidian began his teaching career at Heatherdown. From 1980-1984 he was Head of History and English at Arnold House School in St John’s Wood, London. In 1986 he became Senior Housemaster at The Dragon School, Oxford before being appointed, at the age of 32, Headmaster of Papplewick School, Ascot. He now advises parents and schools via his educational consultancy, Llwellyn Education (http://www.llewellyneducation.co.uk/).

In this interview, we discuss:

  • Life in a prep boarding school
  • Teacher recruitment – 1970s style
  • The breakdown of trust and the rise of conformity
  • Justice vs. Mercy
    – and much much more!

Hope you enjoy! Part Two can be found suggested on the right hand column of YouTube.

The link is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kt–sy4xRA0, and is posted below.

The Pedagogy of Perception

Last Friday, I attended a fascinating forum on Liberal Education put on by Benedictus at Blackfriars in Oxford. Its title was The Liberal Arts -Education and Society.

Every guest was invited to offer a 5 minute reflection on one aspect of Liberal Education. Anthony Radice, for instance, offer these thoughts on Memory and Liberal Education.

I wanted to make a few exploratory remarks about Knowledge and Perception, and ended up speaking mainly about horses…

I started by looking at how Bitzer defines a horse in Hard Times (“Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth…etc”) and said that those of us who defend a “knowledge-rich education” are too often lampooned as calling for this sort of desiccated approach.

I contrasted Bitzer with Sissy Jupe, who is unable to ‘define’ a horse because she has grown up amongst them. Knowledge, for her, in this domain at least, is entwined with Life – and is vivified as a result. This, I argued, is essential for a cultivating a rich, healthy perception of the world. C S Lewis makes the same point in Abolition of Man, arguing for an education that has “some blood and sap in it—the trees of knowledge and of life growing together.

I then used C S Lewis to say that not only should knowledge be conveyed vividly, but affirmatively too:

Of Ruksh and Sleipnir and the weeping horses of Achilles and the war-horse in the Book of Job—nay even of Brer Rabbit and of Peter Rabbit—of man’s prehistoric piety to ‘our brother the ox’—of all that this semi-anthropomorphic treatment of beasts has meant in human history and of the literature where it finds noble or piquant expression—

I wondered what effect a presentation of knowledge in such a way – Vivid (memorable) and with a Positive / Affirmative Disposition – has on students’ Perception. I marshalled Blake (“I look through [the eye], and not with it…”); Coleridge (“We receive but what we give…”); Owen Barfield (“…if quantum physics is true, we see reality not as it is, but as we are…”) to make the point that we have a choice about the way we attend to the world, and that the world responds in kind.

I finished by saying that it was an under-explored job of teachers to aid this effort so that their students’ world is more animated, more enchanted, more pulsating (and by extension less alienated) than it would be otherwise. I said that teachers could perhaps put more thought into whether their lessons were going to have the same effect on their students as the experience I have recounted by Toynbee, who “still retained, some forty years after one experience of the kind, an abiding sense of personal participation in the war of 90-80 B.C. between Rome and her Italian allies…” 

Could there be more thought, analysis and experimentation to develop a Pedagogy of Perception?

 

Oundle Trivium

I recently came across this initiative from Oundle School, and was so heartened that I think Mr Gunson‘s words need quoting in full! What a wonderful example of a school actually enacting that well-worn phrase: “education for its own sake”.

Will follow with interest…

It is vital that pupils do not equate all learning with assessment.

Trivium has no syllabus and no prescribed content. It is a course based on ‘interestingness’. The brief is to educate; to introduce pupils to ideas and culture, to sow seeds and to broaden the educational experience.

The topics explored vary from group to group; whilst one class is studying the works of Koestler, another may be immersed in the art of Berlin. One set of pupils may be discussing ethical aspects of technological advance, whilst another is introduced to the poetry of Yeats.

Many of the themes will overlap, and this is important: one’s appreciation of a work of art is enhanced by an understanding of historical context.

The close relationship between the teacher and the pupils develops during the course of the year. Small set sizes allow for the classroom atmosphere to be similar to that of a tutorial. The philosophy of the course can be summed up by E. M. Forster: only connect.

Kidzania and the growth of a child’s imagination

My office happens to be near Kidzania, the “Educational Entertainment Experience” that has recently opened in Westfield, so it has been the subject of some speculation amongst the Keystone team. I have spent the past few days reading more about it, and confess to some unease about its educational vision.

Kidzania is built over a whopping 75,000 square feet and is conceived as a “child-size city where kids are in charge.” Rather than the sorts of games and rides found in most theme parks, this child’s city offers a range of 60 jobs and activities that mimic the adult world: there’s a newspaper office, a hospital, a bank, a supermarket and even a nightclub. Children are paid for their jobs in kidZos, the local currency, and can spend their hard-earned salary on the activities. They are paid Z8 for being a policeman, Z9 for being a model in the fashion studio, Z12 for being a surgeon in the hospital etc (full list here). The facsimile of adult life is not confined to the city’s market economy. As you can see from some of the family videos that have been shot there, the city has all the meretricious features of modern mall life that will be familiar to anyone who has been to Hong Kong, Singapore, Dubai etc. – from the low-lit boulevards lined by fake trees and sculptures to the ceaseless soundtrack of half-familiar Club Classics.

The educational philosophy underpinning Kidzania is self-explanatory. It is role-play, “a universal form of play enjoyed by children all over the world. Role-play is fun and has very positive educational, psychological and motivational benefits.” Kidzania’s form of role-play “is an exceptional education and entertainment city which stimulates creative thinking and boosts levels of self-esteem and confidence.” Educators and “play experts” have ensured that children learn “creativity, critical thinking, communication, confidence, and collaboration.” Of course, schools are being offered large discounts to entice them to Kidzania for next year’s school trips.

Children have always loved to pretend to be adults, and role-play is surely one of the most time-honoured of children’s amusements.

So what are my misgivings about Kidzania?

They are two:

  • Its environment leaves little room for the imagination. As anyone who has ever held a stick aloft and declared en garde to a friend or sibling knows, children do not actually need realistic toys or environments to lend verisimilitude to their play. In fact, I wonder whether there might almost be some sort of law of diminishing returns – whereby the more realism that is supplied by a toy or environment, the less a child actually derives in imaginative output. When a child is transplanting very life-like organs, like she might in Kidzania, or flying in a real cockpit, what exactly is the imaginative or creative merit? Where is the potential for imaginative growth? This equation can’t be exact of course; a completely desolate environment would not provide much imaginative fodder either. But I have a hunch that the various “Adventure Play” initiatives like The Land are striking a more humane balance. By supplying just enough material (hideouts, small hills, swings, discarded toys etc.) to get children started, such initiatives exhibit so much more faith in the generative power of children’s imaginations. My own tastes would run to something more like Maggie and Rose’s Village Nursery, whose imaginative landscape (a traditional English village green) is thoughtful, harmonious, natural but – crucially – limited. It is not a detailed, realistic picture of an English village, but rather one that leaves plenty of room for the development of a fertile imagination. Rudolf Steiner no doubt goes too far in the quotation below, but I think his insight is so much richer than that offered by Kidzania:

You can make a doll for a child by folding up an old napkin, making two corners into legs, the other two corners into arms, a knot for the head, and painting eyes, nose, and mouth with blots of ink. Or you can buy the child what is called a “pretty” doll, with real hair and painted cheeks. We need not dwell on the fact that the “pretty” doll is of course hideous and apt to spoil the healthy aesthetic sense for a lifetime; for education, the main question is different. If the children have the folded napkin before them, they have to fill in from their own imagination what is necessary to make it real and human. This work of the imagination shapes and builds the forms of the brain. The brain unfolds as the muscles of the hand unfold when they do the work they are suited for. By giving the child the so-called “pretty” doll, the brain has nothing more to do. Instead of unfolding, it becomes stunted and dried up.

  • The content of its role-play is banal. Given that Kidzania has chosen to fill its child’s city with content (and not let children invent much for themselves), I wonder whether they could have chosen jobs and activities with a bit more of the marrow of life in them? There is something curiously anodyne about offering children the chance to be a banker, dentist or air conditioning technician; something more shallow than their grandiose educational promises would suggest about offering children the chance to be a model, beautician or flight attendant – especially in the synthetic way they are presented at Kidzania, with limited opportunities for children to manipulate the experience. It used to be that children would imagine themselves as a knight, a pirate, a Robin Hood. Can’t the burdens of finding a career with a good wage be postponed, at least until after the age of 14? The ages 4 – 14 are a never-to-be-repeated opportunity for children to fill their heads with stories, images and genuinely fertile experiences. Couldn’t a Kidzania be devised, such as this one in the US, that fed such activities rather than taking time away from them?

The question of how far the adult world should be allowed to impinge on childhood receives frequent attention. As I have argued elsewhere, now that primary children are being introduced to financial literacy and a whole host of other adult concerns, it seems that precious little time is being left for genuinely exploratory and imaginative pursuits that were once the joys of growing up.

 

Some (no doubt rosy-eyed) pictures showing the inventiveness of Victorian children’s typical games..

 

Eton – after a socialist revolution

I’ve quite enjoyed racing through News from Nowhere, William Morris’ account of England a generation after a socialist revolution.

I’m sure everyone was worrying… “but what would happen to Eton?”

“Up yonder are some beautiful old buildings, which were built for a great college or teaching-place by one of the mediaeval kings – Edward the Sixth, I think” (I rather smiled to myself at his rather natural blunder). “He meant poor people’s sons to be taught there what knowledge was going in his days; but it was a matter of course that in the times of which you seem to know so much they spoilt whatever good there was in the founder’s intentions. My old kinsman says that they treated them in a very simple way, and instead of teaching poor men’s sons to know something, they taught rich men’s sons to know nothing. It seems from what he says that it was a place for the ‘aristocracy ‘(if you know what that means; I have been told its meaning) to get rid of their male children for a great part of the year. I daresay old Hammond would give you plenty of information in detail about it.”

“What is it used for now?” said I.

“Well,” said he, “the buildings were a good deal spoilt by the last few generations of aristocrats, who seem to have had a great hatred against beautiful old buildings, and indeed all records of past history; but it is still a delightful place. Of course we cannot use it quite as the founder intended, since our ideas about teaching young people are so changed from the ideas of his time; so it is used now as a dwelling for people engaged in learning; and folk from round about come and get taught things that they want to learn; and there is a great library there of the best books. So that I don’t think that the old dead king would be much hurt if he were to come to life and see what we are doing there.

“Well,” said Clara, laughing, “I think he would miss the boys.”

“Not always, my dear,” said Dick, “for there are often plenty of boys there, who come to get taught; and also,” said he, smiling, “to learn boating and swimming. I wish we could stop there: but perhaps we had better do that coming down the water.”

Daisy Christodoulou on Educational Myths

I was delighted to see that the magnificent Daisy Christodoulou, who featured quite a lot in my recent mini-essay on the curriculum, contributed an article to last week’s Spectator.

Her point that some of the trendiest education ideas are actually rather old hat was very well put:

“…one popular buzzword at the moment is ‘21st-century skills’, which sounds about as cutting-edge and modern as it gets…But a similar case was made at the start of the 20th century. In 1911, a prominent US educationalist criticised the way that schools taught pupils ‘a mass of knowledge that can have little application for the lives which most of them must inevitably lead’. Today we also hear a lot about the importance of ‘innovative’ project- and activity-based learning. But in England in the 1930s, the Hadow Report into primary education counselled that the curriculum should be thought of ‘in terms of activity and experience rather than knowledge to be acquired and facts to be stored’. We’ve been trying these ideas, and failing with them, for a very long time.

I had never considered this:

…the reading researcher Keith Stanovich has argued that ‘education has suffered because its dominant model for adjudicating disputes is political rather than scientific’.

I also feel, and am heartened by, this:

“…my impression is that we are at a turning point in education. More and more teachers are realising the gap between the theory they are taught and their practical experience. More and more books are being published which explain the insights of cognitive science and the implications they have for classroom teachers. Instead of the warmed-through fads of the past century, I think the next few years will see evidence-based reforms that lead to genuine educational improvements.”

The whole article can be read here.

Roger Scruton on knowledge, the curriculum and the state’s contribution to education

In a recent BBC Point of View broadcast, intellectual heavyweight Roger Scruton  gave a fascinating history of education since the nineteenth century. It is well worth a read.

Having just written a mini-essay on the curriculum, I was especially struck by this thought:

The state inherited well-funded, long established and dedicated institutions and a tried and tested curriculum that large numbers of people knew how to teach.

Hear hear! He also shares my feelings about the importance of knowledge, encapsulated in this tidy phrase:

Education, we must remind ourselves, is not about social engineering, however laudable that goal might be. It is about passing knowledge from those who have it to those who need it.

(Full article here

 

Making independent schools affordable

If there is one concern that privately-educated friends of mine with new-born children all share it is that they will not be able to afford the education that they themselves were lucky to receive. I predict that this topic will come to dominate UK boarding schools over the next decades.

Andrew Adonis commented on the inflation in boarding school fees, and its cause, in a speech last year:

‘From the 1980s onward, there was fierce competition for theatres, swimming pools. Independent schools wanted to gold plate all their assets. There was a big reduction in class size… ten or not much more became an article of faith, half the level of the state system. And they pay their teachers more. Put all of that together and you have had private school fee inflation of two, three, four, five times the level of inflation at large.’

Will other schools follow Milton Abbey’s lead and cut their fees?

An interesting response from Scotland in the The Independent:

In her price on independent schools (25 February) Rosie Millard makes the all-too-common mistake of picking the biggest number she can find and crafting a lively narrative around it.

The majority of pupils who attend independent school, at least in Scotland, are day pupils who live locally. Annual fees, for those who do pay full fees, are well below £10,000 – not the £30K figure quoted, which is more than any full boarding experience in Scotland would cost.

On top of that, the charity law in Scotland requires means-tested financial assistance for pupils who wish to access the education of independent schools but require fee assistance. The sum of that assistance is well above £30m annually, with bursaries ranging up to 100 per cent.

All of which is why the landscape, seen from here, is a lot more diverse and welcoming than Rosie Millard sees.

John Edward, Director  Scottish Council of Independent Schools, Edinburgh