Sweating the Small Stuff by David Whitman is a fantastic, inspiring book. It describes how no-excuses schools have taken inner city kids from tough backgrounds, and raised their attainment up to and beyond that achieved by those in affluent suburbs. But the author himself acknowledges a key area of concern: are the outstanding efforts of the committed staff members in these schools sustainable in the long term? What about when they grow older, get married, start a family?
The only teacher Whitman mentions who has a family had to leave after giving almost his whole life to the school for a number of years. He had to give his family something, and he couldn’t maintain a balance in a school which tended to swallow his life, with exceptional demands such as frequently fielding calls from pupils in the evenings.
In the call to arms against progressive education, there can be a religious element. One recruiter for the KIPP schools compared working for them to a vocation to the priesthood. This reminds one of the tradition of priestly celibacy. Do teachers dedicated to raising the attainment of disadvantaged children need to devote themselves entirely to their pupils? Is there any room for family life?
I am a teacher committed to high standards and high expectations for all, but I am also the father of a young family. However much I love teaching, however fascinated I am by it, I simply cannot, in good conscience, work a hundred hours a week. My methods, therefore, must be simple and sustainable.
Let’s take the example of homework. A dedication to mastering core knowledge naturally leads to a much more traditional kind of homework, comparable to that typically set a century ago, when homework was often called ‘prep’ – short for ‘preparation’. And for what were pupils preparing? They were preparing to recite their lesson, and they prepared for it by memorising a body of knowledge. They would recite their lesson publicly in front of the class, which was a built-in way of incentivising good performance and proper mastery. The marking of their prep by the teacher consisted of hearing their lesson, or questioning them orally on it.
Thus pupils spent a good deal of time memorising material outside the classroom, knowing that they would be regularly and publicly tested on their knowledge. The teacher did not have a huge pile of paper to mark every time he set homework, as assessment was typically oral. Written assessment and marking could be reserved for much more significant tasks which put this body of knowledge into action.
Surely we have a recipe here for a rigorous and thorough, but not complicated and time-consuming, method of education? I wonder if our reluctance to embrace it is based upon a lingering attachment to the complex, simply because we have been indoctrinated by progressive ideology into thinking complex methods must be best. But our addiction to the complex has seen education spending increase by a factor of nine, without any corresponding increase in attainment.
Whole class chanting of verb conjugations or Shakespeare sonnets or core historical facts is an excellent way of introducing the fundamental knowledge which will enable linguistic or literary or historical thinking. Insisting that pupils go away and chant them repeatedly for homework, then frequently testing them orally to see whether they have, will ensure that this essential knowledge is lodged forever in their minds. It’s how our grandparents managed to master so many lines of poetry, and levels of Latin by the age of twelve which good undergraduates struggle to attain nowadays.
And I must add that as I introduce more of these traditional methods myself, I find that my pupils gain great satisfaction from thoroughly mastering the material. It does not prevent discussion and deeper thinking. We do plenty of that too, both orally and in writing. But we do it with an ever-increasing body of knowledge that enriches our discussion.
So let’s take a great leap forward . . . by learning from our grandparents!