Captain Raindrop # 2 – interview with Rory Darling

In my second interview of my Captain Raindrop project, I interview Rory Darling.

Rory taught Maths and History at many of the top boarding boys preparatory schools in the country, including Summer Fields, Cothill, Ludgrove, Aysgarth and Elstree.

In Part 1, he talks about his entrance into teaching and the changing life of preparatory schools in the 1970s – 2000s.

Please get in touch if you’d like me to Post Part 2 too.

Please bear with me as I learn more about interviewing, editing, etc etc etc!

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.

Heritage School

Today I visited the wonderful Heritage School in Cambridge. There’s so much I’d like to say about the school, had we but world enough and time, but will limit myself to these select quotations from their website for now. The school is a tremendous example of how it is possible to be original and innovative without necessarily feeling the need to “embrace the new”.

Far too often learning is seen as a means to an end – good exam results – rather than an end in itself. At Heritage we understand that good exam results are necessary for progression, but we will never let the legitimate demands of our exam system obscure the central purpose of education: preparing young people for life.

At Heritage our Infants and Juniors go on a Nature Walk once per fortnight. Its purpose is to encourage detailed observation and identification of ‘ordinary’ natural phenomena such as local wildlife, flowers, plants and trees. We are privileged to have easy access to the Cambridge University Botanical Gardens. Students keep a Nature Notebook where what was observed is identified, described and painted using water colours. Nature Study encourages children to have ‘seeing eyes’. Charlotte Mason wrote: ‘Eyes and No Eyes go for a walk. No Eyes comes home bored. He has seen nothing, been interested in nothing, while Eyes is all agog to discuss a hundred things that interest him.’

Picture Study encourages a similar attention to observation and investigation. It involves looking with concentrated attention at a reproduction of a great painting once each week. The painting is then turned over and its details are described from memory. In this way children will get to know a great artist and his work each term. This greatly increases their pleasure and engagement when they can see the original in a London museum, for example, or a 10 minute walk away at the Fitzwilliam Museum.

In June each year we have a ‘Screen Free Week’ to encourage families to think about the amount of time that is spent on screens and to make extra time for other life enhancing activities, including reading.

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?

 

Toynbee: How History can enrich perception

Arnold Toynbee, in A Study of History, digresses to muse upon…

“the experience of a communion on the mundane plane with persons and events from which, in his usual state of consciousness, he is sundered by a great gulf of Time and Space that, in ordinary circumstances, is impassable for all his faculties except his intellect. A tenuous long-distance commerce exclusively on the intellectual plane is an historian’s normal relation to the objects of his study; yet there are moments in his mental life — moments as memorable as they are rare — in which temporal and spatial barriers fall and psychic distance is annihilated; and in such moments of inspiration the historian finds himself transformed in a flash from a remote spectator into an immediate participant, as the dry bones take flesh and quicken into life.

He then gives this example from his own life:

“The present writer, for example, 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 as lasting consequence of the instantaneous effect on him of a passage in the table of contents (periocha) of the eighty-ninth book of Livy’s history upon which he had stumbled one day when, during his reading as an undergraduate for the school of Literae Humaniores at Oxford, he was unexpectantly ploughing his way through the surviving précis of the lost books of Livy’s work in the faint hope of gleaning some additional scraps of knowledge of the appalling history of the Hellenic World in the last two centuries B.C… As the student read this quickening passage of an arid epitome, he was transported, in a flash, across the gulf of Time and Space from Oxford in A.D. 1911 to Teanum in 80 B.C., to find himself in a back yard on a dark night witnessing a personal tragedy that was more bitter than the defeat of any public cause.”

(my emphasis)

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.

Mini-Essay: The Curriculum

In almost a decade of answering questions from parents about boarding schools, I have never been asked about a school’s curriculum. And yet it is hard to think of a feature that has more of a bearing on a child’s education. This short essay makes a case for why the curriculum is quite so important, and suggests a few ways to judge individual schools on the merits or demerits of their curriculum.

I should say a word on the term. A school’s ‘curriculum’ is the course of study it has chosen for its pupils. In detail, it would describe the content of every lesson. Although schools are directed to some extent by national examinations, they nevertheless – and especially in the independent sector – have a lot of freedom to design their own curricula.

Very Brief History

To understand the importance of the curriculum, it is necessary to have a whistle-stop look at its history.

Before the nineteenth century, boarding schools offered a curriculum that appears baffling to the modern parent. Most schools exclusively taught the Classics; Harrow also offered…Archery.

From the nineteenth century onwards, though, after spirited debate as to the merits of new-fangled subjects like Science and English Literature, the curriculum began to take the shape that it was to retain to the present day. This is a curriculum arranged into discrete subjects, such as Maths, English and Science, and organised around the core knowledge included in these subjects. To my knowledge, no more effective curriculum has ever been devised or instituted.

Such a curriculum is what late nineteenth century commentators such as Matthew Arnold called a “liberal education.” (For more on the term, read my mini-essay on the topic.) Importantly, it was thought to be a curriculum that should not be limited to independent schools, but which had universal appeal and benefit. From the 1870s onwards, it met with the approval of headmasters, politicians and commentators of many different stripes. And it was just such a liberal curriculum that inspired the formation of the first National Curriculum in 1988.

However, though the support for such a curriculum was broad, it was by no means unanimous. Weakened by the ideological currents of the 1960s and 70s, the consensus faltered and, as David Conway charts in his brilliant summary of the events, the mainstream educational establishment began to view this curriculum as elitist, irrelevant and not fit for purpose. Since 1988, the National Curriculum has been steadily distancing itself from the curriculum beliefs that had been upheld for so long by both the independent sector and beyond.

From the late 20th Century onwards, then, there was has been a decoupling. The National Curriculum has become ever more suspicious of traditional subject knowledge, and has promoted instead a curriculum that is based on skills (such as “collaboration” or “project research”) and rooted in the knowledge brought to class by pupils rather than knowledge imparted to pupils by teachers. The independent sector, on the other hand, has by and large stuck to the curriculum principles laid down in the nineteenth century.

How does this affect boarding school parents?

Concerns for Parents

Parents should be anxious as to whether the independent sector is safely insulated from the modern educational orthodoxy on the curriculum.

This is not the place to go into detail about why a traditional knowledge-based curriculum is so important for children. For parents who want to read more, the book to read is Daisy Christodoulou’s Seven Myths About Education. For now, one quotation of hers out of many that favour the traditional boarding school curriculum will suffice:

Data from the last thirty years lead to a conclusion that is not scientifically challengeable: thinking well requires knowing facts, and that’s true not just because you need something to think about. The very processes that teachers care about most – critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving – are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge.

So do boarding school parents have any reason to be anxious? In general, I am glad to say, no. Most independent school leaders have rejected modern curriculum orthodoxy, no doubt seeing that their belief in traditional subject knowledge is one of the reasons why the private sector has so outstripped the maintained sector in the last few decades.

However, there are a two concerning trends that I have noticed:

  1. An increasing number of teachers in boarding schools have been subjected to two years of modern curriculum philosophy during their training on the PGCE. “Skills-based” curricula are terribly seductive. I should know: I was enthralled by them when I was a recent graduate teacher myself. What was the point of learning pointless lists of Kings and Queens, when – in the twenty first century – knowledge is just a click away? The modern child surely did not need such an outdated curriculum; he needed to be a flexible, resilient, lifelong learner instead! Without the underpinnings (scientific and philosophical) of a knowledge-based curriculum, many new teachers are prey to the seemingly more enlightened theories of Sir Ken Robinson et al. I have met many well-educated and well-meaning teachers who have been trained to look on traditional curricula with hostility. Such teachers are ever more numerous in UK boarding schools.
  2. For the same reasons that a “skills-based” curriculum is seductive to new teachers, it is also seductive to many new parents. Hence the ever more frequent promise on school websites that they are “preparing students for the twenty first century” by, for example, “developing skills of creativity, flexibility, lateral thinking and enterprise”; or by “fostering intuition and resilience” or by “nurturing empathy and courage.” If these melodious mission statements are achieved by sticking to a traditional subject-based curriculum, the potential for damage is limited; if they are accompanied, as they are in some boarding schools, by a subversion of the curriculum, the potential hazard is immense.

Tips for Parents

How can parents tell whether a boarding school curriculum is knowledge-based or skills-based?

Out of all the aspects of a school’s daily life, the curriculum is one of the hardest to get a handle on. Whenever I visit schools, I do my best – but am often left none the wiser about the content of a school’s lessons. This is particularly the case as few registrars ever have intricate knowledge of a school’s curriculum. A few tips will suffice, though I would be delighted to hear more:

  • Ask to be shown round by a pupil, and ask them what they have been learning in their subjects recently. I particularly enjoy asking about their History lessons. I was told by one group of prep school boarders, with inestimable delight in their eyes, about all the intricacies of the Battle of Waterloo. If pupils relay knowledge (as opposed to vaguer accounts of history projects or source analysis), it is a very healthy sign.
  • If you can’t gain a good idea of a school’s curriculum from its website, ask whether the Director of Studies would mind receiving an email from you. Ask him or her simply what principles underlie the school’s curriculum. If the emphasis is on knowledge over skills, or at least if knowledge is seen as the essential foundation block upon which skills can be built, you can rest easy.

This is a thorny but fundamental topic and, if parents have the time, one that well repays further reading.

The Independent Curriculum

I have been following the Independent Curriculum (or, to give it its full title, the “IC Programmes for Learning”) for a number of years now. Its parent company, Galore Park, have done prep schools a good service by publishing traditional, knowledge-rich text books (including the 1905 Classic Our Island Story) written by excellent independent school teachers like Theo Zinn. Hats off to them.

All of which makes their sponsorship of the Independent Curriculum the more surprising. The IC pays lip-service to knowledge (it “introduces Knowledge Strands alongside cross-curricular Learning Skills to ensure your pupils have the canon of knowledge required from a rigorous, academic education”) but its essence repudiates traditional knowledge-based education at every turn.

The principles outlined in its brochure (available here) are characteristically, if not deliberately, anti-liberal education. You can read it for yourself, but here are just a few highlights:

1) The false dichotomy between knowledge and skills.

“For education to be relevant and effective for the future, it demands a curriculum which not only imparts knowledge but affords learners the opportunity to discover it for themselves, to scrutinise it, to apply it within creative, problem-solving situations and then debate, discuss and communicate it to others.”

2) The invocation of alarmist, irrelevant scenarios to justify educational change.

“But the world is changing – and fast. The perceived wisdom of past generations is no longer sufficient. The pace of technological advancement, the globalised marketplace in which we must all now compete, the depletion of the world’s natural resources, and the everpresent [sic] threats from global warming call for skills beyond literacy, numeracy and knowledge retention. We need innovative, intellectually curious, revolutionary thinkers leaving school with their creativity and courage still intact.”

If the educational philosophy is fluffy, perhaps the content of the curriculums is more rigorous? Alas not.

For evidence, have a read of their suggested Year 4 Curriculum. It is structured so that the learning (Discovering) is in the column to the left and the associated skills (Applying and Communicating) are in the middle and right hand column. Little indication is given to recommended timings on each section so let us suppose that we divide the columns equally. At the most, then, pupils are spending only ½ of their time actually learning the story of the past; the other two thirds are spent doing activities like “imagine a day at a Roman School” or “put together a PowerPoint slide on a typical Roman school day.” This is typical “project-based learning”: a well-meaning suggestion that is rarely an effective use of time because pupils spend their time thinking more about PowerPoint design than they do about Rome and because pupils are left making a project with very shallow knowledge. When you realise that many of the suggestions in the Discovery section are covert projects (“Research what a Roman home would look like”), one is left with the impression that if this curriculum was implemented, very little history would end up being committed to memory each year.

The brain is rarely riper than in Year 4 for soaking up oodles of History knowledge: a typical Temple Grove pupil in the middle of the nineteenth century was reading Thomas Carlyle by the end of Year 5. It is not out of cruelty that liberal educators would bid the child to put down his Pritt Stick; there are plenty of other times in a child’s day – e.g. at home or in Design and Art class – when they would actively encourage it. Liberal educators asset knowledge instead of projects because the reverse leads to the waste a 9 year old’s precious History lessons with thoughts and activities not related to the learning of History.

Mini-Essay: The Abolition of Man

It is a frequent lament of liberal education enthusiasts in this country that they must so often turn to the United States for inspiration. So it was that, via the US education think-tank the ISI, I first came across C S Lewis’ slim, digestible book on education, The Abolition of Man. Few books have had such a profound effect on me, especially on my views of education. It can be read for free here, and I much recommend this accompanying lecture (number 118 on the list, I believe) by the entertaining and rather mellifluous Dr. Richard Gamble.The book can be read in one sitting, and I would hate to spoil the experience for the uninitiated, so I shall limit my commentary to just one point – on sentiment in education.C S Lewis’ writing is a wonderful tonic to modern conceptions of sentiment, which leave most commentators divided between automatons and sentimentalists. Today, it seems, one is either in favour of regimentation, efficiency and accountability (see most of McKinsey’s reports on education systems, or politicians’ regular praise for the education systems of Korea and Singapore), or else one would rather schools resemble Rousseauian playgrounds, exalting creativity and individual expression above all else.

C S Lewis would be appalled by both visions, though it was his fears about the former – the technocraticisation of English schools; the mechanization of their products – that led him to write the book. In my favourite line, he writes: “The job of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts.”

What did he mean by deserts? He worried that children were being educated in a way that robbed them of their souls – though atheists may prefer the word spirit. He illustrates his point with several examples, most from a popular elementary textbook of the time. I’ll repeat just one – on horses. In the textbook, the writer has found “a silly bit of writing on horses, where these animals are praised as the ‘willing servants’ of the early colonists in Australia”. The writer “debunks” this piece of writing and explains that horses were not interested in colonial expansion.

That C S Lewis picks out this example is a testament to his value as a writer on education, and to what we’ve lost now that his like are not around. Most parents or teachers would skim over this tiny detail as incidental, a bit trivial, not worth worrying about. Not Lewis, who writes:

“I find that the same operation, under the same general anaesthetic, is being carried out. Orbilius [his name for the writer] chooses for ‘debunking’ a silly bit of writing on horses…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—he has not a word to say. Even of the problems of animal psychology as they exist for science he says nothing. He contents himself with explaining that horses are not, secundum litteram, interested in colonial expansion. This piece of information is really all that his pupils get from him. Why the composition before them is bad, when others that lie open to the same charge are good, they do not hear. Much less do they learn of the two classes of men who are, respectively, above and below the danger of such writing—the man who really knows horses and really loves them, not with anthropomorphic illusions, but with ordinate love, and the irredeemable urban blockhead to whom a horse is merely an old-fashioned means of transport. Some pleasure in their own ponies and dogs they will have lost; some incentive to cruelty or neglect they will have received; some pleasure in their own knowingness will have entered their minds. That is their day’s lesson in English, though of English they have learned nothing. Another little portion of the human heritage has been quietly taken from them before they were old enough to understand.”

Not just the missed opportunity to leave a child uplifted, but the actual reduction in scope and spirit that a lesson like this might cause, is tragically revealed. Elsewhere in the book, Lewis repeats the damaging consequences: “The authors themselves, I suspect, hardly know what they are doing to the boy, and he cannot know what is being done to him…It is not a theory they put into his mind, but an assumption, which ten years hence, its origin forgotten and its presence unconscious, will condition him to take one side in a controversy which he has never recognised as a controversy at all.” That the capacity for worthy, “ordinate” sentiment is what it means to be human is why C S Lewis chooses such a fearsome title: by robbing children of this capacity, we are abolishing the species.

A very good friend, who teaches English at a top London independent school, tells me that C S Lewis’ fear is well-placed with regard to many of the colleagues he has worked with. One telling observation was the number of his colleagues – clever, professional, sometimes brilliant, well-meaning men and women – who would disparage as childish or needless their students’ tendency to imagine characters’ lives beyond the pages of a novel. History departments do the same damage to their students’ historical imaginations when they refuse to be drawn into class discussions on counterfactual history. As Lewis says, the result is that “we make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise.”

There is nothing about the sentimental approach encouraged by Lewis that means that the education has to lack rigour – so often the case with modern attempts to prioritise the sentimental. The English public schools used to be purposeful standard-bearers for a middle way, managing to be at once academically rigorous and encouraging of “ordinate” sentiment, but I for one have fears that this is now under threat. It is interesting to note that C S Lewis, like Tolkein, T S Eliot and other writers who left school before WWII, were the last generation to have had a rigorous classical education. Anyway, the book has much more to it than what I’ve discussed above, and I heartily recommend it.

James Paul Gee

I recently came across James Paul Gee through David Smith. He is exactly what I was looking for: an eloquent champion of the beneficial role of computer games in learning.

You can see him in two great talks here and here. Wikipedia entry here.

Three points that resonated:

  • “School is all manual and no game.” A Professor of linguistics before becoming interested in gaming, JPG argues for the existence of “situated meaning”. Anything we read, he says, makes much more sense if we can relate it to an experience, image, idea, action or argument we’ve already had. (His comparison is with computer game manuals – they only become useful after you’ve played the game for a bit). Most children do not connect with textbooks not because they can’t make sense of the phonics [aside: I had the enriching pleasure to see Margaret Snowling talk about phonics last week] but because the books’ specialist language doesn’t connect with anything out of which children can make meaning.
  • Assessment. As JPG says, you don’t need to test a player who has completed the most difficult level of Halo on his Halo-playing skills: the assessment is built into the game. His argument is that there must be some means of mimicking this design when designing, for instance, algebra-learning courses. Would it not be possible for students to only qualify for a more challenging level once they defeated the last, in a way that was built into the whole learning process – and without the endless annual trauma of exams.
  • Problem-solving. In just a few comments, JPG brings a breath of fresh air to the turgid knowledge vs. skills debate currently boring the UK. Facts about Science/ French vocab items/ History dates are putting so many children off because, despite teachers’ vigorous assertions to the contrary, they can’t see them as tools. In well-designed games, knowledge is realized as tools. To quote JPG more fully:

“School is locked into content-fetish. It’s all about facts. Biology is the 1200 facts somebody in Biology discovered. Memorise 1100 and get ’em on paper – you pass Biology. [But] Biology, Physics, Chemistry ARE NOT FACTS; they are problems to be solved. And Biologists, Chemists and Physicists use facts as tools to solve these problems, and once they’ve used them again and again, they can’t be forgotten.”

I have one criticism so far:

  • This is a little unfair, as I have only got about fifty pages through it, but I can’t understand JPG’s unbridled support for Marc Prensky’s Don’t Bother Me Mom I’m Learning. The splurge of exclamation marks (+15 per page in some parts) is off-putting; the lack of footnotes unsettling. The hysterically partisan style (chapters are titled with scammy phrases like “But Wait – What About All That Bad Stuff I Hear About In The Press”) is what really put me off, though. Once I’ve finished the book, I hope to post more, but I get the feeling that this stuff is only going to convince the massively-sceptical wider population if its approach is cautious and substantiated with sound, academic arguments.