Pedagogical romanticism


Why trusting to the intuition (aka “professional judgement”) of individual teachers is wrong but wromantic*

Having explained in part eight that the failure of criterion referencing was due to poor implementation and not a mistaken ambition, in the next sequence of posts I shall explain why we still need to describe our educational objectives clearly and at a granular level. In this post (part 9 of my series on educational purpose) I shall explain why our current delivery model is failing and will continue to fail so long as we reject the explicit description of educational objectives.

In part one of this series I suggested that Professor Biesta and Daisy Christodoulou both made the mistake of considering the aims and means of education as being antagonistic rather than complementary. In my most recent part eight, I suggested that Biesta and Christodoulou also agreed in opposing the explicit description of our educational objectives. In this part I will suggest a third point of agreement: they both believe in what Brian Simon called “pedagogical romanticism”: trusting in the intuitive judgments of the individual classroom teacher and opposing the systematisation of teaching.

Among progressive thinkers, the opposition to systematic forms of pedagogy is explained by the sort of soft relativism that I have already covered in my parts two (The elephant in the room) through five (Flyvbjerg, Aristotle and teacher expertise). This explains why Simon, writing Why no pedagogy in England? in 1981, complaining of (p.34)

deep confusion of thought, and of aims and purposes

identified the opposition to systematic pedagogy with theories of child-centred education (p.40):

The concept of learning as a process involving the formation of new connections in the brain and higher nervous systems…points … towards…the need for the systematisation and structuring of the child’s experiences in the process of learning. And it is precisely from this standpoint that a critique is necessary of…the whole trend towards so-called “child-centred” theories, which have dominated this area in Britain basically since the 1920s, to reach its apotheosis in what is best called the “pedagogic romanticism” of the Plowden Report.

Traditionalists like Daisy Christodoulou also tend to oppose systematic pedagogy but for different reasons. For them, it is progressive educational theories that have introduced unnecessary complexity to the classroom, distracting teachers from what ought to be the straightforward business of conveying knowledge to their students. Martin Robinson, for example, is endorsed by Tom Bennett when he argues for simplicity as a way of putting the teacher back on centre stage:

Strip away everything. No computers and clocks; no pens, blue, black, red or green. No books. No chair or table. Just two people. From this central relationship all else follows.

Martin and Tom would surely agree with the mid-nineteenth century American president who described his ideal learning environment as:

a log hut, with only a simple bench, Mark Hopkins [a popular pedagogue of the time] on one end and I on the other.

Socrates would also have agreed, practising what he preached through dialectic conversations with young aristocrats in the Athenian public square. It is a model still used today in the Oxbridge tutorial. The paradigm of the inspirational teacher is reinforced by Hollywood (think of Dead Poets Society) and by politicians and officials, who, like Sir Michael Wilshaw, commonly assert that “a school and a school system is only ever as good as its teachers”. It is a romantic proposition, emphasising the human spirit, painting education as a moral crusade, appealing equally to the vanity of teachers and to those who wish to demonize them. But it is a model with one fundamental flaw: it does not scale; and in the context of a mass education system, that is as good as saying it does not work at all.

A model that prioritizes the intuition of the individual teacher necessarily entails a decentralized organisation. In a comprehensive education system, there are not enough Socrateses to meet demand. In 1971, at the time that such a comprehensive education system was being introduced in Britain, Kim Taylor, Director of Learning Resources at the Nuffield Institute and ex-Headmaster of Sevenoaks School, warned of the problems this would create.

Schools are like the very earliest factories: simple materials, walls, workers and overseers. The tools of the trade, the machinery and equipment, are rudimentary…there is not much to counterbalance the skill, or lack of skill, of the individual teacher. Teaching is a job almost wholly dependent on manpower, and in the foreseeable future in the secondary schools the craftsmen we need are going to be in scant supply.

The training of teachers, on which so much therefore depends, is further inhibited by their isolation:

A nurse is instructed by a sister who is told what to do by a doctor who is regularly guided by a consultant. There is no similar interlocking hierarchy of experience and skills in a school…it is hard to think of any other trade in which such isolation persists.

If teaching were just about the dissemination of information (as naïve traditionalists might argue) or just about the facilitation of the independent development of the student (as naïve progressives might argue), then the job of the teacher would be a simple one. But neither of these accounts of teaching is satisfactory. One of the primary functions of the teacher, as argued by Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam’s research into formative assessment, is the design and sequencing of instructional activities and the provision of individualised feedback. These processes require good domain knowledge, pedagogical expertise, the management of complex logistics, and much labour.

Taylor’s warning about teacher shortages was prophetic. The problem has dogged western education systems ever since. It is not that teachers can’t be found. As pointed out by Linda Darling-Hammond’s recent report, A Coming Crisis in Teaching? Teacher Supply, Demand and Shortages in the U.S, there is no “shortage of warm bodies willing to stand up in front of a class of students”. The problem manifests itself as a lack of teacher expertise.

This analysis is confirmed by Eric Hanushek, whose research suggests wild inconsistency in teacher performance. He showed that the top quintile of teachers teach in six months what the bottom quintile of teachers take two years to teach (p.1052-1072). If such a level of inconsistency were transferred to the National Health Service, it would lead to excess death rates for one in five doctors of between 100% and 200%, significantly more than the excess death rates caused by the Mid-Staffordshire NHS trust, which at a mere 40% nevertheless led to a national scandal.

The problem of inconsistent performance is aggravated by heavy workload, which is another symptom of the failure to scale. Excessive workload erodes morale, aggravates staff shortages by increasing wastage, and further reduces the quality of teaching. In spite of what Professor Rob Coe calls the “impeccable” evidence in favour of formative assessment, the DfE’s Independent Workload Review Group recommended in 2016 that teachers give less feedback on the spurious grounds that this is not what was meant by formative assessment in the first place:

written feedback to pupils offering guidance with a view to improving or enhancing the future performance of pupils… seems to have arisen…[as a result of] practice which misinterpreted and ultimately distorted the main messages of Assessment for Learning.

The fundamental problem with modern, western education systems is scale. Systemic problems need to be matched by systematic solutions, but systematic solutions can only be attempted once our educational objectives have been defined. As Brian Simon argued, it is necessary “to define common objectives for all pupils across the main subjects” if we are to be able subsequently “to determine, through experiment, appropriate pedagogical means” of attaining those objectives (pp.159-60). This is what Nuffield Combined Science and SMP Maths attempted in the 1970s. As Tim Oates has persuasively argued, both Finland and Singapore built successful education systems in the 1990s through the centralized production of systematically designed learning materials.

We turn our backs on Simon’s advice because educationalists of all ideological bents still cling to the notion that teaching is principally based on the private intuition of the teacher and their individual relationship with the student. It is a notion as romantic as the Victorian fantasies of knights in shining armour rescuing chaste maidens from ravaging dragons, fantasies that reached their peak of popularity as Britain led the world into the industrial revolution. I recommend anyone who shares such illusions, or thinks they represent a superior kind of morality, to listen to The Century of the System, the second of Atul Gawande’s 2014 Reith lectures, in which he gives a moving account of how young girls are saved in real life.

In part 10, Managing the complexity of the classroom, I shall argue that such a systematic approach to education is not defeated by the complexity of the classroom, but offers an effective way to deal with it.

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