I usually try very hard to avoid personal attacks in my blogs – even when writing about Michael Gove. But this is a response to Toby Young so an exception can be made. Last week, to much self trumping, Toby Young published for the right wing sink tank, Civitas, an attack on anyone who disagrees with his views on education – accusing one and all as members of ‘The Blob’ – a term nicked from Michael Gove. Most of the article was nicked actually, from Daisy Christodoulou, but with Young’s customary rudeness thrown in for good measure. It was an argument so flimsy and ill informed that a sneeze would dismantle it. And I have a spare five minutes…
For those of you who do not know Toby Young, what better introduction that his own words, on the web site of his school…
“Toby Young is one of the founders of the West London Free School. He is a British journalist and the author of How to Lose Friends and Alienate People (2001)” Thankfully he has now removed the sentence which listed a ‘sex play’ as one of his achievements – a sentence that sat on the school website for well over a year. What kind of parent was he hoping to attract with that one? I imagine a cluster of pin-striped fathers pushing their offspring through the gates and rushing off for a spanking with a well paid dominatrix (while conjugating latin verbs). But it’s gone now. Now it’s just a school for the unpopular.
So that’s the ad hominem part over – let’s look at the errr…substance…of the actual argument.
His article : “Prisoners of the Blob : Why Most Education Experts are Wrong About Everything” makes a number of assumptions which are in themselves deeply flawed. He claims that:-
British State Schools are “in decline”
In decline from what? Since the creation of the comprehensive system, the state system has only improved – data from Ofsted itself shows that schools and teachers are better than they have ever been. Where is Young’s evidence for this decline? Well, there isn’t any. It’s an opinion. It might help to define what exactly has declined. If it were teacher morale, children’s interest in school, the moral purpose of schooling etc I might find myself in agreement. But no, the opinion seems to be based on the loss of the ‘O’ Level and Latin.
Everyone in education shares a progressive educational philosophy blocking progress.
Young criticises those of us working in education for being ‘child centred’. He is of course, confusing child centred with child led, a common misconception among those who have absolutely no idea what they are talking about. Of course education should be centred on children. What else could it be centred around? Oh, wait….Ofsted-centred, profit-centred, self-centred? There is an assumption in the pamphlet that child centred means learning without teaching, modelling or guidance. But that is not what happens in schools. In fact Hattie’s research shows clearly that the dominant teaching model in schools is the teacher led one, not the progressive one. For my own part, while I argue strongly for creative and innovative approaches to teaching and learning, I know that some things just have to be taught and learned. This is a common denominator. It is a base line, not an aspiration. Young and his supporters announce that teaching kids facts is indicative of rigour. In fact, it is a lowering of the bar so far that a slug could leap over it. Let me give an example:-
I am ‘teaching’ Romeo and Juliet. We are analysing a speech of Juliet’s and exploring the meaning of some of the metaphors. This is the BASELINE. It is easy to get children across a baseline. But I want them to remember the play and I want them to love it. For that I have to try harder.
We are doing this in role as detectives investigating her death. The children are intently looking at the language for clues as to her state of mind. They are undergoing training from a ‘linguistic forensic expert’ on the use of language. They KNOW it’s a fiction, but the fiction gives them motivation to look harder, to remain focused, to remember the learning. This is CHILD CENTRED learning.
Young paints a picture of progressive education devoid of knowledge and discipline, with no recognition that teachers are not simply charged with teaching knowledge, but in making that knowledge stick. He bandies around the terms ‘cognitive science’ without engaging with any detailed exploration of what we know about the brain. Here’s some cognitive science for you, Mr. Young:-
1. Accountable talk in groups has a significant impact on learning and achievement – (Michaels and Resnick 2008)
2. Feeling valued and trusted in the classroom creates conditions in which the brain feels safe to learn (Curran 2009)
3. Teachers and children who gesture well and who are attuned to each others gestures have a better understanding of concepts and are more likely to be able to explain them – movement and talk are essential to learning. This makes learning a community endeavour (Goldin- Meadow et al 2003, 2013, 2014)
4. Emotion is inextricably linked to effective decision making – suggesting that equipping children with the skills to explore and handle their emotions links to effective reasoning (Damasio 2006)
It is interesting that not a single one of these eminent and well respected cognitive and neuroscientists are mentioned in Young’s work. Not one. Instead he argues that teachers are basing their practice on the philosophy of Rousseau.
Let me be clear – without undermining my profession, most teachers, even if they have heard of Rousseau, won’t have the faintest idea what his educational philosophy was. Suggesting that we plan our lessons based on his Romantic educational philosophy is plain daft. But then, his whole argument is daft and rather than finding real evidence for it, he describes those who oppose him as ‘blancmange’. The whole article is littered with cliches and mixed metaphors. The Blob is a single amoebic entity but also a collective mass. It is both dangerous and comic. Actually, Toby, the image is just childish, wearisome and dull. Young does claim only to be a journalist and not a writer – a semantic gap akin to woodcutter and carpenter, but still….some originality would be refreshing. Some proper research. Some evidence. Instead we get this:-
“For those of us who favour a knowledge-building, teacher-led approach, it is this ideology that is the enemy, not those who believe in it”.
And there we have it – this is an attempt to pick a fight with an imagined enemy from a small group with a ‘favoured’ view. Nothing more. The problem is that to fight, you have to have an enemy who knows who he is. No-one recognises themselves in this blob because the reality is we need skills AND knowledge. We need engagement AND discipline. Everyone working in the classroom knows this. And if this were all that Young attacked, I’d probably leave it alone, but look at this:-
“The central pillar of The Blob’s educational philosophy is the belief that children are essentially good. That is, children are naturally curious, imaginative and creative and the purpose of a good education is to enable children to express fully these innate talents”.
This belief, that a child is good, creative, curious and imaginative, is apparently a bad thing. But it is the conflation between that belief and the purpose of schooling that is flawed. I do believe that children are naturally (on the whole) curious, imaginative and creative. But I don’t think that the purpose of education is to simply express this. I want them to be able to read, be numerate, have knowledge and experience. It’s just that I want the latter to be achieved without crushing the former. Is that too Blobby for you Mr. Young?
And again, in his ignorance, there is a wilful misinterpretation of a key educational term – relevance. For Young, the idea of making learning relevant to children means limiting what is learned to their world experience. He attacks this as meaning that only popular culture is taught. What utter nonsense. Making learning relevant is about finding the human connection to that which is taught. Finding the wonder in the world. My students love Romeo and Juliet partly because falling in love is relevant to them. They love learning about priests fleeing into priest holes during the reformation because fear is relevant to them. This ridiculous sullying of the concepts of relevance and engagement in education flies in the face of what we know about the brain and how it learns. Making connections – both emotionally and intellectually – is a key strategy for making learning memorable. Keep up Mr. Young.
Like Christodoulou in her book, Young reels out examples of really poorly constructed role play lessons in order to dismiss the entire notion of using role to develop empathy. Imagine if we used a few examples of poor Maths teaching to argue the case that Maths was irrelevant. Putting poor practice out for ridicule in order to attack the whole is an easy way to score points, but it helps no-one. ‘Pretend you’re a slave’ is crass. Almost as crass as lumping the entire education establishment together and calling them a blob. But not quite.
I could go on picking holes in this piece of lace, but they are obvious to anyone who cares to take a look. And I have work to do. So here endeth the spanking Mr. Young. My bill is in the post.