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.

 

 

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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.

Dare the School Build a New Social Order?

In 1932, George Counts took on the leaders of the Progressive Movement of his day in a pamphlet called  Dare the School Build a New Social Order? He counter-poses the individualistic aims of US progressives to the collective solutions required in economic crisis. In a vision of the ‘American dream’ that might jar for its overt nationalism, Counts resolutely places the agency of teachers and students at the heart of building a new social order in which the citizens control ‘the machine’ of industrialism. 

In an excoriating attack, Counts starts by blaming the “liberal-minded upper middle class” leaders for progressive education’s failure to elaborate a theory of social welfare. He writes that the middle class “find it hard to live without their customary material comforts, are rather insensitive to the accepted forms of social injustice, [and] rarely move outside the pleasant circles of the class to which they belong” (p. 8). As a consequence of its leaders’ preoccupations, the progressive movement promoted a passive form of “extreme individualism” (p. 7). Rather than being empowered to construct the world around them as Counts advocated, children were taught to adapt to changing social conditions:

Under such a conception of life and society, education can only bow down before the gods of chance and reflect the drift of the social order. This conception is essentially anarchic in character, exalts the irrational above the rational forces of society, makes of security an individual rather than a social goal, drives every one of us into an insane competition with his neighbours, and assumes that man is incapable of controlling in the common interest the creatures of his brain. Here we have imposition with a vengeance, but not the imposition of the teacher or the school. Nor is it an enlightened form of imposition. Rather is it the imposition of the chaos and cruelty and ugliness produced by the brutish struggle for existence and advantage. Far more terrifying than any indoctrination in which the school might indulge is the prospect of our becoming completely victimised and moulded by the mechanics of industrialism. The control of the machine requires a society which is dominated less by the ideal of individual advancement and more by certain far-reaching purposes and plans for social construction. (pp. 26-27)

The solution according to Counts was for academics and teachers, as the representatives of “the common and abiding interests of the people” (p. 29), to come together in order to exercise their knowledge and wisdom in seeking and then using power. They would reject the aims of the industrial and banking elite in favour of a return to an American democratic tradition that sought an egalitarian society. This would entail combating “all forces tending to produce social distinctions and classes”, repressing “every form of privilege and economic parasitism”, providing “adequate material and spiritual rewards for every kind of socially useful work” and striving for “genuine equality of opportunity among all races, sects, and occupations” (p. 41). Such an “attack on the economic system” (p. 45) was to be achieved through an evolution from individualistic concerns to the collective ownership of industry, although, as Counts warns, collectivisation might require “the method of revolution” (p. 42) as a last resort.

Even though, in this vision, teachers lead social change, progressive schools were not to become organisational centres of revolt against big business. Rather, they were places in which teachers would “fashion and bequeath” (p. 54) a vision for the future and recruit students for the fight ahead:

Our Progressive schools cannot rest content with giving children an opportunity to study contemporary society in all of its aspects. This of course must be done, but I am convinced that they should go much farther. If the schools are to be really effective, they must become centres for the building, and not merely for the contemplation, of our civilisation. This does not mean that we should endeavour to promote particular reforms through the educational system. We should, however, give to our children a vision of the possibilities which lie ahead and endeavour to enlist their loyalties and enthusiasms in the realisation of the vision. (p. 37)

While there are obvious problems with this prescription (not least of which is the expectation that the teaching profession would act as a unified cadre), Dare the School Build a New Social Order? reminds us how far teacher agency, independence and initiative have been suppressed since the writing of the pamphlet. Today, the suggestion that progressive teachers lead social resistance seems outlandish. Unfortunately, the self-interested liberal middle class that Counts railed against still holds sway in our movement.

Saving the ‘disadvantaged’

The UK government is currently proposing to bring back the grammar school system by allowing secondary schools to select students. According to the Prime Minister, this will ensure “Britain’s education system shifts decisively to support ordinary working class families.” The Foreign Secretary claims grammar schools are “a great mobiliser and liberator” that help the “brightest children from poor homes.” And the Department for Education claimed (falsely, as it later turned out) that “white working class boys” do better at grammars.

All this is rank hypocrisy. At the same time as promoting selection, the UK government is involved in cutting school budgets in real terms. A few ‘disadvantaged’ students might gain access to a new grammar school, but the vast majority of students eligible for free school meals face worse conditions with larger class sizes and fewer resources. 

The government’s paternalistic approach allows it to present itself as a liberator. In reality, working class children who gain access to grammar schools are drawn into the establishment’s world view. Instead of developing into critical citizens, the ‘most promising’ are institutionalised and set up for a life of conformity. Big business benefits from the domestication of future managers; the political system survives through the promise of social mobility.

Although purportedly saving the ‘disadvantaged’, the only thing being saved is a capitalist system that has always brutalised and exploited the vast majority of students from poor backgrounds.

The double duty of progressives

Progressives seem to be on the back foot at the moment because of how the educational system measures outcomes. We have to succeed at the traditionalists’ knowledge-based targets and also at our own aims. 

The decision on the value of educational outcomes is currently in the hands of those who want the progressive model to fail. State schools in the UK are evaluated on a number of quantitative measures set by the Department for Education (DfE). These measures focus exclusively on children’s knowledge acquisition and data is collected through formal examinations.

Progressives have other aims as well. We want students to

  • understand the concepts of equity and justice and practise them in their everyday lives
  • think and act flexibly and critically in a variety of situations outside the exam hall and
  • acquire an independent ability to learn from and reflect upon experiences after formal schooling.

Thus, progressives have a double duty. On the one hand, they have to focus on narrow knowledge acquisition so students and schools can survive the DfE’s impoverished view of education; and, on the other hand, progressives must remain true to the principles that allow students to thrive through education.

This double duty can seem impossible to achieve at times. The pressure from the DfE and its right-wing political masters to focus on traditionalists’ aims can be daunting. Yet, in our time of reaction in educational thinking, the fight to preserve progressive ideals is even more important than at any time in the last century. 

As Shatsky wrote about progressive education in 1918:

These ideas need to be nurtured, elaborated, examined in more detail and put to the test. Each new attempt fans the hope that an easier legacy has been passed down to the next generation.

 

A time of reaction (in state schools)

study of PISA 2012 data found that “state school pupils report more traditional teaching than in private schools.” This should come as little surprise. The elite do not pay for their children to be treated like those in the local state school who are herded into large classes and taught by rote. Not for them the dependency and passivity of the children of the poor; no, they want their own children to be independent and curious. And for this, they pay private and international schools for critical thinking and inquiry-based learning.

In a time of limited budgets, traditionalists not only justify this division, but also make a virtue of it.

Traditionalists argue that an authoritarian approach is necessary so that poor and working class children acquire ‘knowledge capital’. Without it, they claim, the ‘disadvantaged’ are doomed to perpetuate their cycle of deprivation. This highly paternalistic (and insulting) approach sees  young people forced to comply with petty rules and revere authority or face being criminalised. The regimented classrooms remind the observer of a Pavlovian experiment in which children play the part of the conditioned dog; the corridors remind you of a military parade ground. In fact, authoritarianism leads to unpleasant character traits (such as, being a good liar) and ‘zero tolerance’ leads to the suspension of a disproportionately high number of black and disabled students.

Of course, support for authoritarianism is exactly what cash-strapped governments want to hear in recessionary times. Standardise teaching and assessment, and thereby achieve economies of scale, by inviting big business to impose its sterile blueprint for education regardless of the local context. Turn teaching into a few nasty acronyms (such as, Lemov’s STAR), which teachers can learn by rote, rather than train teachers to be creative and reflective. In this way, state schools become places of regimented students, limited curricula and uncritical teachers.

All three are cheaper than the alternative: regimented students take up fewer resources than caring institutions use for the well-being of vulnerable individuals; limited curricula take less time to implement than those responsive  to the students’ needs and interests; and uncritical teachers are easier to control when the state reduces salaries and cuts back opportunities for professional learning.

The duty of progressive teachers is to promote in state schools the teaching methods that the elite can afford to pay for. As Dewey wrote in Democracy and Education, “It is the aim of progressive education to take part in correcting unfair privilege and unfair deprivation.” 

 

Part 3 – Shatsky (1922) ‘Which comes first: the children or the school?’

Extracts from Stanislav Shatsky, A Teacher’s Experience (Progress Publishers, 1981)

(p. 203) The main question which should serve to get rid of the blurred ideas of present-day educationists is not what is the kind of school we need today, but what is a child’s life, what are its characteristic features and in what way are they of value in relation to the work of the school.

(p. 209) The enormous task facing any reasonable state lies not in moulding people of monotonous uniformity to carry out the functions required within the state, but in creating conditions as favourable as possible to the structuring of children’s lives at any given time. To live now, this very minute, to master the art of living in such a way that the needs which each age brings to the surface might be satisfied, that is the best way to prepare someone through a series of imperceptible transitions for the form of vital activity peculiar t the mature adult. In this and only in this endeavour does the main task of the state lie when it comes to education.

(p. 212) One of main focuses which I would recommend for work in school … is that of the “child-explorer” or “child-researcher”

(p. 215) These three forms of experience – personal, structured and pre-processed – exert a somewhat intermittent spasmodic influence upon children. Our target with regard to method should be to link together in a single process and to analyse carefully the interdependence of these three types of experiential activity peculiar to the child, school and life itself…. The crux of the matter lies, as I see it, in the fact that this process of comparison [of different types of experiences] is only accomplished in real life with tremendous difficulties. School in providing a favourable environment for working on that comparison serves to remove many of those difficulties.

(p. 216) We must be able to identify the material drawn from personal experience, analyse it and then on the basis of the conclusions drawn from such analysis organise our lessons in school so that these serve to fill out gaps in the child’s personal activities to date, checking, refuting or affirming the correctness of observations made by children (whatever these might consist of), and then to establish analogies with ready-made experience of human activity (in art, work and science).

(p. 218) School, in its work to lend shape to children’s lives should be concerned with study of the elements (activities) which constitute that life. In order to carry out this task we need to turn our attention to the detailed aspects  of children’s lives as these unfold within the natural conditions of the child’s environment.

(p. 223) The sole goal for schools and teachers should be to organize varied activities for children and to study them as they engage in these all the time. The curriculum needs to be organised not round ‘subjects’ but round activities for the children.

(p. 228) Thus school represents the leaven, and the environment in which it causes leavening to take place is children’s life in the broad sense…. [S]chool should exist for children and not the other way round.

(p. 229) We create for them artificial, allegedly suitable conditions in which to foster learning, yet in practice we do not guarantee children conditions that are even tolerable as far as hygiene is concerned, with regard either to their physical health (all too often schools can be a rich source of infantile diseases), mental health (apathy, boredom, fatigue) or moral health (deception, fighting, rivalry, cunning, fears to which the community of children in a school is subject). All these shortcomings stem from the fact that the school is cut off from the main stream of children’s lives. In this case in their most extreme, i.e. consistently applied methods, such schools become the setting for a distorted life meted out to the children.