Why Pedagogy Is Political

In my first blog as editor, I wrote about what unites Labour teachers. The purpose of education is rarely a truly controversial topic amongst teachers. Although we each place our emphasis differently, the key notes of knowledge transfer, social mobility, preparation for life (emotional and economic) recur.

Where educators disagree, quarrel, fall into rival camps and call for battle is pedagogy. An afternoon lurking in the shadows of edutwitter will reveal this in stark, truncated, passive aggressive snippets. Why is this the case? To quote Deng Xiaoping, surely it doesn’t matter whether a cat is white or black, as long as it catches mice: if we are all reasonably agreed on our preferred destination, why does the method of transport matter so much?


Schooling and the Left

The Left has an ambivalent relationship with schooling. Sir Ken Robinson’s Ted Talk ‘Do schools kill creativity?’ is emblematic of a type of Romantic criticism of modern education that finds traction with some of the liberal middle-classes. The central tenet is a core belief in a Rousseauian individuality: young people are perceived to be unique individuals who need shielding from the warping effects of society in general, and modern capitalism in particular.

In his lecture, Sir Ken charismatically explains that rather than being a symbolic victory in the liberation of the working classes, the development of free education for all was actually a crushing victory for capitalism against the vulnerable individual. Indeed, state education was created in the image of the industrial revolution and it exists only to serve its needs. Schools process our children in the same way East Lancashire mills handled cotton or Ford built cars. Young minds are arranged by ‘manufacture date’ (date of birth), moved from station to station in batches at the beck and call of bells, monitored, quality assured and finally, horrifically, graded.

Sir Ken’s vibrant and inspiring speech has been viewed over 40,000,000 times. This is a viral success that far outstrips what one could reasonably expect from a (didactic) talk about education paradigms from a man without a large public profile. Evidently, it caught the zeitgeist and spoke to people beyond the professional confines of education. But for those of us who do work in education, it compelled us to ask a series of inter-linked, uncomfortable and profound questions: are schools moral places? Do they do good things? Am I a just a stooge of capitalism?


Teacher as banker

Teaching is not a highly-paid graduate career, and nor, judging by recent statistics, is it a highly desirable one. But it is one that carries some residual social respect in the UK, although admittedly not approaching the near deification levels of esteem one might apparently expect in Finland or China. It is seen as a moral way to make a living. However bad the day was, or stressful, or unsuccessful, the weary teacher can be consoled that she is fighting the good fight.

However, a line of critical pedagogues, beginning with Paulo Freire, would contend that this is not the case. Freire’s famous book Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ (1968) is, a seminal work, but one best encountered through secondary literature. Perhaps it suffers from a clumsy translation, as reading its clunky and repetitive Marxist phrasings is like hacking through a semantic jungle. But, occasionally, Freire’s ideas burst forth and appear irrefutable in their clarity. I quote him at length discussing first the deleterious effects of didactic teaching, a key aspect of ‘traditional’ pedagogy:

Narration (with the teacher as narrator) leads the students to memorize mechanically the narrated account. Worse yet, it turns them into “containers,” into “receptacles” to be “filled” by the teachers. The more completely she fills the receptacles, the better a teacher she is. The more meekly the receptacles permit themselves to be filled, the better students they are.

Moving from this traditional method, Freire builds to a description of the type of learning it fosters:

Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the “banking’ concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits. They do, it is true, have the opportunity to become collectors or cataloguers of the things they store. But in the last analysis, it is the people themselves who are filed away through the lack of creativity, transformation, and knowledge in this (at best) misguided system. For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other…

Naturally, Freire sees the role of teacher as crucial in upholding this debasing status quo. In a fabulous parenthetical aside, he damns the whole profession:

(for there are innumerable well-intentioned bank-clerk teachers who do not realize that they are serving only to dehumanize.)

The Hidden Curriculum

John Taylor Gatto, an American educator and author of the best-sellingDumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling’ (1992), helped to popularise Freire’s notion that what was being taught in school wasn’t just what was on the curriculum. Gatto explains that the government, and the collected forces of capitalism, have created ‘compulsory’ state schools to indoctrinate the population. His essential point is similar to Robinson’s, but where Sir Ken emphasises how dance and drama are under-valued, Gatto believes the people of America and Europe are being manipulated to think like a bovine herd by capitalist pay-masters. With the frustrated zeal of a man who believes he has escaped from a cult, Gatto issues a blunt explanation of the moral value of teachers and schools:

“Although teachers do care and do work very, very hard, the institution is psychopathic-it has no conscience. It rings a bell and the young man in the middle of writing a poem must close his notebook and move to a different cell where he must memorize that humans and monkeys derive from a common ancestor.”

A recurring refrain in Gatto’s work provides us with yet another analogy:

“School is a twelve-year jail sentence where bad habits are the only curriculum truly learned.”



A Progressive Solution

Schools, then, are factories, banks, or jails: the holy trinity of evil to any Romantic. And the crucial thing that makes them this way is people like you and me: the teachers. And what is actually damaging the children is not just the cruel institution itself, but the way in which we teach. Traditional pedagogy denigrates, dominates and dehumanises the individual.

But all is not lost. Freire gives us hope that we can be part of the solution:

The raison d’etre of libertarian education, on the other hand, lies in its drive towards reconciliation. Education must begin with the solution of the teacher-student contradiction, by reconciling the poles of the contradiction so that both are simultaneously teachers and students.

We can’t destroy the institution of schooling, but we can subvert it by fundamentally altering the paradigm. We can be co-creators, and co-learners with our students. As Gatto put it:

The primary goal of real education is not to deliver facts but to guide students to the truths that will allow them to take responsibility for their lives.

‘Progressive’ education can be seen as an attempt to address some of the sterner criticisms of Robinson, Freire, Gatto et al., from within the education system. By changing the nature of the relationship between teacher and student, no child could claim to be dehumanised like a factory part, or treated like a soulless savings account. By focusing on creativity, engagement and choice, comparisons to jail would be rendered meaningless. Only in the Daily Mail do prisoners celebrate and enjoy their incarceration.

On the surface of it, there seems to be little to dislike here and not much at risk. The valuable institution of school is perpetuated, but modified to suit the politics of its practitioners. The worst excesses are curbed, and the rights of the individual protected.


Criticisms of Critical Pedagogues

However, such criticisms are hard to take. Traditional pedagogues grafting through life in their didactic way, believing they are helping to inform and inspire the next generation are entitled to mount a robust defence from this unanticipated attack by fellow teachers.

It is easy to trace the outlines of their enraged riposte. Whatever the failings of traditional pedagogy, progressive methods are not, by default, benign. Whilst it is surely the case that many teachers use progressive methods to great effect, it is also possible to criticise the pedagogy using the same tactics as those employed to critique traditional methods. The straw-man opposite of the banker-jailer teacher is that of the cheerleading-guide-on-the-side. A merry adult merely observing, but not overtly influencing, an ‘education’ that has collapsed into an unstructured, student-centred series of engaging but ultimately insubstantial activities. This type of education also encodes a hidden curriculum. An unfettered dedication to the self, obedience only to one’s own fleeting interests, and an absence of depth, rigour and context in learning. This is thin soil on which to develop a fertile understanding of the world, and likely to yield a crop of self-entitled, self-satisfied know-nothings. These evils are surely as deleterious and as destructive to the individual and to society as those identified by Freire, Robinson and Gatto.

Moving to the structural basis of Romantic progressive education, one can note briefly that there is much about Rousseau to treat with caution. In Emile, his treatise specifically addressing education for children, he states:

You are afraid to see him spending his early years doing nothing. What! is it nothing to be happy, nothing to run and jump all day?

The merits of this approach can be debated. The fact that he sent all his (five) children to Paris Foundling Hospital, and therefore very likely to their death, so that he would be free from supervising such jumping so that he could write about it is, sadly, indubitable. Ad hominem aside, Francis Fukuyama in The Origins of Political Order (2011), offers a substantial and compelling biological and anthropological challenge of Rousseau’s foundational belief in the ‘natural’ tendency towards ‘individuality’ in humans.



Tradition Restated

Although it enjoys seeing itself as a challenge to orthodoxy, in British state education a version of the progressive approach had been in the ascendancy for a generation. When I did my subject specific secondary PGCE at Cambridge almost a decade ago, learning styles, group work, engaging starter activities, post-it notes, reduced teacher talk-time, thinking hats, etc. were recommended. Certain schools (who rejected the title ‘school’ and did what they could to reject the logical necessity of lessons and timetables) were held up as examples of what we could help build.

The ascendancy ended when Gove and Gibb, acolytes of E D Hirsch, ushered in a knowledge-based curriculum. The teacher was now back to being sage on the stage, and the new school ideal looked more like a South Korean hagwon than a Rousseauian forest school.

The pendulum swings because it must: because neither progressive nor traditional, as emotive as the debate is, has the monopoly on truth.

Freire, Robinson and Gatto raise good questions, not all of which our current education system can answer. However, their objections are overblown. School is not, for most people, a loathsome adolescent jail or dehumanising factory. It is a good place, where mostly good things happen. If it is a workshop at all then it is the one where the meritocracy of our society is (imperfectly) formed. Most students recognise this, because ultimately so do most parents.

Where the criticisms are at their weakest is, crucially, where the debate is at its most febrile: the nature and purpose of the teacher. Progressive educators are rightly very aware of the impact a teacher has on a young person, in particular through the messages that are encoded in the ‘hidden curriculum’. But teachers are not bank clerks. Nor are they factory workers, or prison screws. They have the potential to transform lives and they have the potential to bore, frustrate and underwhelm. The school system is not a cunning invention of capitalism, but a mostly safe, mostly good place where adolescents can learn to be successful adults.


Little at Eton

Anyone seeking to establish that traditional pedagogic methods, regardless of context, have a damaging effect on the psyche of children must contend with the fact that they have not just been the thin instructional gruel of the oppressed industrial proletariat. They have also been the de facto method of instruction utilised in boarding schools and grammar schools throughout the country throughout the centuries. I’m sure it would come as some surprise to well-heeled parents paying premium fees that the ‘hidden curriculum’ is inculcating in their children a learned helplessness.

In Tony Little’s surprising book, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Education (2015), the former Eton head’s holistic approach to education shines through. He sees academic studies as vital, but not to the exclusion of everything else. Lessons are a necessary aspect of an education, but not sufficient on their own. He writes warmly about house plays which explore complex human relationships, about the group dynamics of boarding life, about sport and how it develops character.

State schools are not in a position to offer comparable levels of extra-curricular activity. That is a terrible shame. But a sense of perspective in this highly-charged debate is welcome. I feel that, ironically, progressive criticisms of traditional teaching methods assume that the only form of interaction a child has with an adult, or a peer, is in the classroom. This then charges these interactions, significant though they undoubtedly are, with more importance than they actually have. Lessons are not the only thing in a young person’s life. Each young Emile is part of a family, and a wider community. He has friends. He plays: maybe on the Xbox, maybe with a basketball. Maybe both. He uses the internet. He interacts with the world. He will learn obedience and deference, and creativity and individuality outside of the classroom as well as in it. School is vital, but it isn’t, and shouldn’t be, the only place a young person learns. It isn’t the root of all social problems, nor is it the panacea.


The Politics in Pedagogy

My interest in the debate is more pragmatic than polemic. On the continuum I’m much more traditional than progressive, but really I’m just concerned with catching mice. The aims of education are much more important than the means. But I believe this because, as outlined above, I think the criticisms of Freire, Robinson, Gatto et al are mistaken and therefore their solutions unnecessary and replete with their own failings.

But I think having the debate is vital. Where we have this tension between traditional and progressive pedagogy, it is likely that neither side will attain ideological purity, and we will enjoy the best system: an alloy of the two.


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