Preface to a post on Donalda Dickie

Last weekend the twitter account linked to this blog became the centre of a bizarre discussion on social media. One educationalist described the account as satirical and someone’s idea of “a bit of fun.” If he had left it at that, the discussion might have amused some on a cold Sunday. However, he went on to disparage the names of progressive educators from the past:

We might imagine that the tweets came from a traditionalist. Yet the source was someone who uses the twitter handle @imagineinquiry, writes about the Mantle of the Expert (MOE) and trains teachers in its methods. Unfortunately, he seems to have little idea about the history of his own preferred pedagogy and the ideas of Dorothy Heathcote, the founder of MOE.

In a PhD thesis on Heathcote and MOE, Ruth Sayers says: “Heathcote’s work was rooted in progressive teaching methods.” In the earlier work, according to Sayers, Heathcote adopted Dewey’s description of testing ideas in the “crucible of real life experience”, using ‘crucible’ as a metaphor for the classrooms in her drama-based model of learning. Moreover, Heathcote explicitly used the context of a laboratory in her later works, echoing Helen Parkhurst’s Dalton Laboratory Plan.

We should add that it was the 1931 Hadow Report (also mentioned in the timeline of our twitter account and similarly disparaged as “an esoteric article”) that was one of the first official reports in the UK (from the Board of Education) that recognised the importance of child play and dramatic work: “Drama, both of the less and more formal kinds … offers further good opportunities of developing that power of expression … closely correlated with the development of perception and feeling.”

dickieWhile the ignorance of the educationalist might concern his publishers, his puerile and even offensive comments about the names of the leaders of our movement require a response from progressives.

In the next post, we shall honour the contribution of one of the progressives belittled for her ‘funny-sounding’ name. Donalda Dickie (right) was involved in devising the Enterprise Method and enacting system-wide change of education in Alberta (Canada). She is an inspiration to teachers who attempt to promote progressive education in state schools.




Teacher talk: ‘Just tell them’

The traditionalists always have a deceptively simple remedy for the complex social interactions that make up classrooms in state education.

The latest relates to their favourite topic – knowledge. On social media, they bemoan the existence of classrooms in which “the person who knows the most, talks the least.” They run polls about the percentage of time taken up by teacher talk in lessons, implying that anything below 70% is a dereliction of a teacher’s duty. Some are much blunter, using the hashtag #justtellthem.

Just tell them? This would be laughable if it wasn’t for the financial cuts being imposed on state schools. There is a danger that such a message might gain ground because it is seen to reduce costs. If ‘just telling them’ is a legitimate pedagogy, then why not have one teacher just tell 40 students in a classroom or 60 in the canteen or even two hundred in the sports hall?

Of course, equating learning to the direct transfer of knowledge fails to address the issue of what students are learning. In the simplistic world of the traditionalist, students learn the content of teacher talk. However, students also learn through the form of talk. Indeed, the form might be far more influential than the content. From lessons in which teacher talk predominates, children learn that their ‘proper place’ is to listen to their ‘betters’; they learn that their opinion or understanding is not valued; and they learn that passive conformity is the way to achieve approbation.

It is embarrassing that we need to spell out why student talk is important. It allows for the assessment of  students’ understanding, enabling the teacher to plan or change the course of a lesson and evaluate the lesson’s success. Students learn – and learn from each other – how to explain, debate and dispute in constructive and critical ways. In progressive classrooms, students also pose questions, explore ideas and participate in directing the lesson.

So, should the person who “knows the most” talk for most of the time? Maybe, on occasions. Students might need direction from the teacher or subject knowledge to pursue a project or inquiry. But, it is inherently undemocratic for the teacher to dominate classroom talk.

Moreover, there is a danger that teacher talk reinforces low self-esteem that develops outside school. Through social interactions with authority figures, students, particularly those on free school meals, might already consider themselves inferior. Teacher talk has the insidious effect of compounding that feeling of inferiority.