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.

Paddy Leigh Fermor’s historical imagination

I have previously quoted Arnold Toynbee, whose immersive reading of History allowed him to ‘see’ – through what Iain McGilchrist would call the world’s “semi-transparently” – historical incidents taking place as it were before his eyes.

In a similar vein, I love this excerpt from one of Paddy Leigh Fermor’s letters, which I heard quoted by John Julius Norwich at a talk not too long ago. He is imagining the route of an elephant called Abulahaz sent by Haroun-al-Rachid as a present to Charlemagne in 802 AD:

I wonder which route he took? Bagdad-Palmyra-Aleppo-Antioch, then by sea probably to Bari and along the Appian Way to Rome; then north, over the Alps at the Brenner, across Germany and up the Rhine? Or Venice, perhaps, then Vienna and along the Danube? I like to think that perhaps the Caliph sent him via the Hellespont or the Bosphorus and through the Byzantine Empire – they were on fairly good terms till the end of 802. But then they would have had to cross the new Bulgarian state, reigned over by a horrible khan called Krum, who, at banquets with his boyars, used to drink out of the skull of his defeated enemy the Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus, bisected and lined with silver. They were a rotten lot. I bet if they had spotted Abulahaz they’d have eaten him. But if they had got through Bulgaria all right (travelling after dark perhaps) things would have been better in what later became Hungary, because Charlemagne had defeated the beastly Avars there, and scattered them eight years before. There would have been a few Slav settlers gaping at the doors of their huts as the little troop went by: Abulahaz, his mahout and grooms, and probably an escort of Bedouin lancers.The Hungarian plain was ideal elephant country then – all swamp and forest, unlike now. (One is so prone to forget that a squirrel in the reign of King John could travel from the Severn to the Humber without once touching ground.) I do hope the elephant went that way, because it’s just the way I went, and am writing about. I could have come nose-to-trunk with his phantom on the banks of the Tisza (a Hungarian tributary of the Danube) as he squirted cool jets all over himself among the reeds……

Full transcript here: https://patrickleighfermor.org/2016/01/20/paddys-world-transcript-of-john-julius-norwichs-talk-for-the-plf-society/

 

 

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?

 

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..

 

The moral training of young children

I recently read a piece in The Guardian about the introduction of financial education in our schools from next September, intended to teach children to “solve money related maths problems and learn about public finances, pensions and how to budget”. Worthwhile behaviour this of course is, and the priority given to such lessons is a growing trend in today’s schools. I think it reflects the role that the curriculum plays in the mind of today’s activist. Faced with the crisis of obesity, or waste, or the role of women, the activist suggests that we teach children how to eat their greens, use fewer plastic bags, dismantle the patriarchy and so on.

Such suggestions are benignly given, seem sensible and few would question the problems they seek to solve. But do such lessons achieved the desired effect? I think they are often have three unintended consequences.

Firstly, such lessons take time away from a school’s core purpose, which is the transmission of knowledge. You’ll notice that most of these lessons are aimed at primary school children who have not yet mastered the foundations of arithmetic, reading, writing, grammar, history, geography, science etc. Lessons instructing children in particular attitudes or behaviours were traditionally a responsibility of the home because it was felt that schools did not have enough time to combine ethical lessons with traditional subject lessons. Here is an example of a lesson on water health and wellbeing as part of the Guardian’s ‘Live Better Challenge’:

“[F]ive nine- and 10-year-old boys fan out next to each other in the grass under a big, leafy tree. Another boy tries to lie beside them. “Get up, we can’t have six fingers. Go and be soap!” bawls part of the “hand”. The unwanted finger reluctantly hauls himself to his feet and joins the larger group of pupils standing over the outspread hand. Grinning at the sheer daftness of it, they all start to bob up and down in unison, making splurting noises as the “fingers” wriggle energetically on the ground. “Miss, look, we’re a soap dispenser!” the pupils call out, verging on hysterics as they try to co-ordinate their “squirting” action.”

Every hour that a child spends in lessons like these is an hour he is not spending learning the essential prior subject knowledge needed to understand the world in any depth.

The second effect is an effect of the first. Without foundational subject knowledge, is it not probable that children will learn the behavioural commandment without understanding the knowledge underpinning it? The best time to consider conservation, nutrition, feminism and other prominent contemporary issues is once a child has a good working knowledge of natural biology, human biology, history, politics etc. Without knowledge, the commandment becomes something of an empty cartridge, unconnected to the wider fabric of human knowledge, less likely, perhaps, to lodge in the daily consciousness of the child.

Lastly, I have long been unconvinced that lessons in behaviour, which might otherwise be called lessons in character, are best taught explicitly in the classroom. The independent sector has always understood this truth, preferring to inculcate virtues through the careful cultivation of a child’s experiences outside the classroom, such as on the sports field or in the dining hall. If we are to teach character in the classroom, do the above examples – and many like it – really hold up to scrutiny as virtues? Are they not rather applications of older virtues, such as temperance (‘temperantia‘) or charity (‘caritas‘)? To misrepresent the application of a virtue for a virtue itself is to conspire in a moral muddying of the waters, particularly when we are talking about the character formation of young children.

To take one example, a recent government report found that the UK had slipped from sixth to ninth place in the Global Entrepreneurship and Development Index, that “a relative lack of ambition and positive attitudes may hold the UK back from realising its full entrepreneurial potential”, and that therefore the following lessons in primary schools were to be encouraged:

“Schoolchildren as young as five as will be taught how to set up their own businesses and make profits under plans to be unveiled this week…Those changes would mean that even the youngest children will be taught about the role and importance of business and the need to make a profit.”

The instruction “to make a profit” is not a morally defensible virtue in itself, but is rather an instance of the older virtue of diligence (‘industria’); just as the instruction to eat healthily is an example of temperance (‘temperantia’). Profit is a benign outcome only when tempered by other virtues and limited by other vices – above all greed. To set up profit itself as the virtue is, in C. S. Lewis words, a “rebellion of the branches against the tree.”

For more than a century, the multitude of different Purposes for education has disturbed and confused the means. “We [profess] to make ideal citizens, super tolerant neighbors, agents of world peace, and happy family folk, at once sexually adept and flawless drivers of cars,” Jacques Barzun wrote – in 1945. There is of course a place for character education, and the UK independent sector has been responsible for some of the best examples of it, but it would be wiser if it was both confined to a later stage in a child’s schooling and limited in scope to virtues and vices that have stood the test of time.

Towards Understanding

The crest and motto of Shaw House School.
The crest and motto of Shaw House School, courtesy of its Facebook page

How far a motto describes the ethos of a school is a matter of some debate, but I rather liked the crest I saw on a recent visit to Shaw House School: “Towards Understanding.” Humble, unambiguous, purposeful, it perished with the school in 1985 when the buildings were discovered to be unsound.

The land was passed to Newbury County Council, which opened a state secondary on the same site in 1999. A new school, with a new motto:

Personal excellence and collective responsibility

I don’t want to labour the point, but I wonder if the waters have not been muddied when the schoolchild who went to school knowing that he was expected “to understand” now goes “to be personally excellent and collectively responsible”?

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