Twenty years of getting it wrong? An essay in educational ideas.


In education, power is quite a thing.  As a young graduate in Education, I was introduced to the idea that that  schools were places complicit in reproducing social strata, keeping the powerful on top and working people down via the imposition of both an explicit and implicit curriculum which favoured the more affluent classes. State education was a place where not only was an elitist, private school curriculum taught, but the norms, values and language of the establishment were also transmitted, recycling the status quo, keeping the powerful in power.

These middle class ‘ways’ were either familiar to pupils, thus confirming their feelings of belonging and positive esteem, or they acted as barriers to such feelings, preventing pupils from utilising education in the same way. Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital, the invisible currency of the powerful, fuelled the idea that education perpetuated class division through the transference of culture, or what we might even call ‘taste’ or ‘style’.

Framed this way, teachers and schools were then considered to possess the means to disrupt this transference and to hand back power to the less affluent by working against the establishment through radicalising pedagogy.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paolo Freire, suggests oppression begins when students are perceived to be empty vessels, waiting to be ‘filled up’ by the knowledgeable educator. In turn, he rejects traditional education itself as the expounding of ‘official knowledge’ that always intends to oppress. For him, schools remain places of political indoctrination where teachers can and must, reveal and problematise establishment propaganda in order to liberate the oppressed.

Heavy stuff! Such extreme language you might say! Not what springs to mind when we think of the schools that we know, but these are the ideas that were prevalent in education degree courses twenty years ago, whether they still are remains to be seen.

Bourdieu was inspirational to me. I wrote a dissertation on his ideas that fuelled my desire to work hard in my life to make the world a fairer place through teaching. Some people might have called me naive, but Bourdieu was the god of socialist-educational zeal and moreover, his academic thinking and research gave credibility to this fervour. He was not wrong; we were not wrong, because how could it be wrong to want to work for equality?

Well, of course it is right to want this; it is right to feel uncomfortable with inequality and wise to understand that we are all better off when things are fairer; history has shown this time and again. No one is unaffected by the poverty, lack of education and empty prospects of others. Some might pretend they are immune, convince themselves they can escape to somewhere and close the door, yet the effects of ignoring the suffering and problems of others only allows it all to worsen until it knocks on that closed door and tramples it down.

Bourdieu, son of a postal worker, became a social anthropologist concerned with how power moved around in society. He found that the university students from poorer backgrounds didn’t have the same tastes or make the same choices in things like art, music, theatre, clothes etc as those of the more affluent students. In turn, this eventually prevented poorer students from accessing more powerful positions in society. It’s not hard to see this when we think about how we slot people we meet into a social class just by the preferences they might make, the clothes they wear and even the programmes they watch.

However, as Hirsch notes in his commentary concerning the down turn in the French schooling system after the change to progressive education, the poorer students still got to university under the pre-progressive system, whereas before poorer people weren’t even making it to university at all. Notably, the thing that Bourdieu really did miss, and what pulls his theory apart, is time. Bourdieu did not give education the time it needed to have a real effect on society. It takes more than a generation for schooling to make generational change.

He was correct that the more affluent students did exchange this cultural currency and move up through the ranks; it is true that what and who you knew mattered, likely they still do. However, as Hirsch asserts, Bourdieu did not analyse the choices made by the children of the poorer students. He did not give his brilliant idea time. The offspring of the poorer students made choices that were not the same as their parents, but moved closer to those of the ‘establishment,’ or what Hirsch calls ‘the insiders’. Cultural capital was transferred, power was moved, it just took longer. Education did not keep everyone in the same place as Bourdieu and his contemporaries asserted. As Hirsh reflects upon the French abandonment of their community based, knowledge-rich curriculum, ‘why dismantle a school system that had produced a Bourdieu?’

We see this today. My father, brought up in a small town in North Wales, son of a working-class council worker, got a place at University in London. He took the blows of being a small, town Welsh boy surrounded by the chic and savvy of London. And now here I am, with all the cultural capital he and my mother passed down to me, enjoying writing this blog in my nice house. Education did not hold my family where it started out, but it does seem to be holding more working class families back now.

At aged twenty, I had not read Hirsch. Thatcher, the daughter of a green grocer,  was in power, epitomising the tyranny of the establishment and the terrible inequalities of society that the rich enjoyed. She also hated teachers.

Then added to my pedagogic education, were the ideas of Dewey and Rousseau. Dewey argued strongly that the student should be encouraged towards self-efficacy and independence in their learning, which eventually they should, who would argue with that? Far from being empty vessels, Dewey believed that students arrive with their own understanding and therefore must relate what is to be learnt to themselves in order to create meaning.

In turn, Dewey asserted that students should be active agents engaged in enquiry, or what we might now call ‘hands on’ learning, thus linking Dewey rightly or wrongly to the huge advance in learning through problem solving rather than through rote or drills. In addition, Dewey criticised schools at the time for creating what he saw as passive recipients, mollified by the learning of multitudes of facts that only served to create compliant citizens.

Then there was Rousseau, another educationalist dominating post graduate reading lists.  Similarly, Rousseau propounded the idea of children learning through experience rather than transmission, asserting that it was better for children to acquire knowledge through active involvement in the world, supporting many of the ideas today regarding learning through play and self discovery.

All these ideas were further compounded throughout my initial teacher training and I began my teaching career with the firm belief that part of my role as a teacher was to try to readdress power imbalances, democratise the classroom and hand the means to new knowledge and new power to pupils.  Never really expressed in such terms in school, nevertheless, teaching was a career with emancipation as one of its prime intents.

Thus, I began my career by pitching myself as more a facilitator than a teacher; we should, after all these philosophies told us, position ourselves as ‘guides on the side’ rather than as ‘sages on the stages; we are not transmitters but co-constructors of knowledge. Children are not ‘tabula rasa’ or blank slates, but arrive in school complete with ideas of their own about the world, which I still believe to be true and of great significance in planning learning. However, from these ideas came the idea that the curriculum should  arise from the locus of the child, rather than from external imposition. As Hirsch says, this view asserts that we should ‘accommodate teaching to the characteristics of the child,’ so that the curriculum is not an ‘artificial imposition,’ but is instead ‘developed naturally’ (2018:139). It is this idea of working at the child’s pace and ‘where they are’ that dominated teaching when I started and even when I was at school in the 1980s.  I left comprehensive school embarrassingly ignorant of the world and later had to teach myself the basic humanities, science, maths and English knowledge required for teacher training. ( I recall that many post graduate students on my teacher training course did not understand basic grammar rules for example, or even simple fundamental scientific concepts, unless they had specialised in these areas for their degrees.)

Still, back then, learning through discovery was considered to liberate the student and ensure learning related to themselves. The more I equalised the knowledge status of pupil and teacher, the better teacher I would be; the less I spoke, the better teacher I would be, after all, telling is transmission and transmission is imposing a curriculum? Teaching official knowledge was committing to indoctrination therefore, following pupils’ lines of enquires through focusing on skill acquisition would liberate students from this artificial imposition of an external curriculum?

Of course, it was never verbalised in this extreme way, but that was where the ideas about teaching in this country had come from, whether people knew it or not, many didn’t. Lessons with less teacher talk, less teacher intervention in fact, were always considered better.  At one point, teachers were even given a percentage ratio so that any lesson where teacher talk rose above 20% more than pupils’ was considered overly ‘teacher-led,’ and heaven forbid a lesson should ever be that.  To stand at the front of a class of pupils and talk for longer than a few minutes meant you were a traditionalist, ‘old fashioned,’ ‘stuck in your ways’ and not able to ‘move with the times.’ Whether or not your pupils learned more if you taught that way was never ever thought about, let alone researched. The best teachers were invisible. The best lessons were child-led, even if they learnt very little.

Now, I didn’t arrive at school every day with a red bandanna around my head whistling Power to the People. Being a young student teacher running along by the seat of my pants, it was all I could do to get through a day, let alone think about the politics of my role. However, these ideas, that were expounded at university and during teacher training, were prevalent in various intensities across the profession; whether people consciously thought of them like that or not, these concepts drove ideas about teaching and learning, and still do in many instances today.

The consequence was that it was considered good practice to allow pupils to run with projects that were fuelled by their own interests. It didn’t seem to matter that often children from poorer backgrounds had very little to start with so that their projects were, dare I say it, never as good as those children who came with lots to say and full of ideas to put into their projects. It didn’t matter because we were ‘starting with the child’ rather than imposing knowledge upon them. It didn’t seem to matter if some pupils were producing complete rubbish, while others were producing master pieces as long as it was led by the child.

Lessons that were active, full of opportunities for children to naturally discover new ideas were prized, but often these resulted in concepts that were forgotten quite quickly and usually never returned to, resulting in low levels of learning. As well, concepts we wanted children to ‘pick up’, like for example, understanding the effect of the earth rotating around the sun by drawing around their shadows over the course of a day, were never actually discovered at all, but had to be told to pupils at the end of the activity because  the children had thought more about chalk and the funny shapes of their shadows rather than anything to do with the sun.

Somehow these supposed eureka-discovery moments (if they ever actually occurred) were considered irrevocable forms of learning, it being unnecessary to return to them because through the supremacy of discovery they would be forever embedded. Somehow, knowledge realised by the child had a different quality than if the same knowledge had been told to them by the teacher. That was Dewey and Rousseau right there, whispering through the corridors of schools, whether we knew it or not.

Interestingly, it was usually only the more privileged pupils who had rich experiences and conversations outside school who benefited most by consolidating and embedding what they already knew through experimentation.

So now years later, I ask, were we duped by Bourdieu, Freire, Dewey and Rousseau? Did we, have we, in a commendable attempt to support the underdog and upset the status quo, actually held the underprivileged down? Did we ironically only compound the disadvantage of those lacking in access to cultural capital outside school through all that child centeredness?  Has too, our post war obsession with the individual and individualism ignored the value of what Hirsch calls, the ‘communal knowledge’ of a knowledge-based curriculum founded on the best of what is known and said, thus excluding so many from what he calls, ‘the knowledge and language club,’ of which society’s successful have membership (2018:126). This is not to pitch communal knowledge as that of the dusty, old, white men, but the shared knowledge that evolves through community understanding, which must include the sources, interpretations and reactions to the previous, creating continually refreshed shared knowledge.

Now that cognitive science has thrown a light on the roles of long term and working memory and knowledge acquisition, did we let down generations of pupils by undervaluing knowledge acquisition through transmission teaching and emphasising child centeredness as much as we did? Are we still doing this in fact? How many leaders are still advocating practises because they ‘feel right’ politically and even morally, rather than because they have looked at the evidence that they improve learning? There is no doubt that Dewey and Rousseau were great educationalists and made very worthy contributions to the profession, but did we ignore their lack of fit with where we were and how society was? Are we still?

Cognitive psychologists like Bjork, Willingham and Sweller have shown that learning based on projects, problem solving and child-led enquiry before pupils are sufficiently knowledgeable in the subject, most often result in poor levels of learning. Educationalists like Dylan Wiliam and Daisy Christiodolou assert the same. Sweller has also shown that most of what we teach in schools is non-instinctive knowledge which humans cannot just ‘pick up’ naturally like for example, the instinctive knowledge of walking and talking. This is why we have schools, to pass on the communal knowledge of humankind which we have created over thousands of years. True, that has in the past been centered around those dusty, old white men, but are we as humankind not seeking to upgrade this now? Shared knowledge is not fixed.

But, as Hirsch has said, the greatest feats of humankind have come about, not through one person sat alone ‘discovering’, but have actually come about through shared knowledge over time, handed from one generation to another which paved the way for discovery. There was no Einstein without Newton, no Newton without all the shoulders of giants on whom he stood. Same goes for any great and knowledgeable person, male or female – it’s communal, shared knowledge they have arisen from.

At the same time, Hirsch, Willingham, Bjork and Sweller and such like, have not said these child-centred approaches to learning should be banned, or are inherently negative, but they have said that the emphasis on them over knowledge acquisition is not good for learning. So why does child-led, project-based learning remain so popular in many schools? The motivation might be noble, but the reality seems to say something different to me now. I’m not feeling it, as they say.

Currently, the opposition to teaching through a knowledge-rich curriculum seems motivated by the fear that we will slip back into lining up rows of tables and rote learning of unconnected facts, like list of kings and queens, or capital cities. The strength of feeling supporting child-centred learning and the mistrust of a knowledge-rich curriculum taught primarily through direct instruction rather than problem solving and project learning, seems to arise from a worry that we might then not be the emancipatory profession we thought we were. Or worse, that perhaps, as I heard one person say recently, that woolly teachers who hide behind lots of glue and papier mache  might actually have to get up and teach, although this doesn’t sound like any of the teachers I know, or have known.

Ironically, it seems we curtail children’s freedom if we fail to endow them with the knowledge and understanding they need in order to gain an expansive understanding of the world which they can use to become powerful, informed individuals themselves. It just cannot be right if large numbers of children leave school without a basic understanding of  the big ideas we share as humans. As Tim Oates has said, most of these big ideas have not changed for hundreds of years so the argument that knowledge is always changing anyway so why teach it, is just wrong.  What gravity is and how it comes about is not going to change anytime soon. True, pupils might be able to look these facts up on the internet, but missing out on such important everyday knowledge signals wider deficits in knowledge and understanding about the world which excludes many from that ‘knowledge and language club’. Could it be that Hirsch is spot on when he talks about ‘the three disastrous pedagogical theories: naturalism, individualism and skill-centrism?’ (2018:140). I’m beginning to think so.

I also know that I have always been motivated to work hard for my pupils; the people I have worked with over the years have been the same; the people I work with now are the same.  I also know that the more I learn about education through research-based evidence the better teacher I will be. We’ve never had a better opportunity to learn from authentic evidence rather than heart-felt passions or moral intent. And without question, I have learned that blindly accepting things because they ‘feel right’ or because we are told this way is better because it’s more exciting or engaging is no longer acceptable… or indeed emancipatory. If we really want to ‘make a difference’ then the knowledge gained through rigorous evidence must prevail.

And…I’m not burning my red flag, I believe in socialism more than ever, but if knowledge is power, then let there be knowledge all over the place and for everyone…


Reference:  Hirsch. E,D. (2018) Why Knowledge Matters. Rescuing our children from failed educational theories. Harvard Education Press.