Chanting in Unison

E D Hirsch comments that we should acknowledge the superiority of individual instruction, while realising that it is not viable in a large scale education system, and so we must, if we do not want to neglect most of our pupils, teach the whole class. It is the only practical option.

But I think we can go further than mere pragmatic necessity in our arguments in favour of teaching the whole class together. If we are focused on drilling key skills and inculcating key knowledge, then whole class teaching offers powerful possibilities that are unavailable in one to one tuition.

With the whole class, we can chant in unison. I usually begin my lessons reciting a classic poem or a speech from Shakespeare as the class walk in. They join in lustily as they come through the door. They enjoy it, and it’s a wonderfully simple and effective way of gradually filling their minds with beautiful and well known examples of English literature.

The experience of reciting a poem together with the whole class is educationally effective and it is personally satisfying. The class is joined together as it comes in, not fragmented into separate worlds, separate conversations. Speaking something out loud is enormously helpful in the process of memorisation. We build a muscle memory as sportsmen do with repeated practice.

The chanting in unison doesn’t end there. Whenever there is something important, a key concept or piece of information, we chant it together a few times, whether it’s the dates of the Tudor monarchs, the four cardinal virtues or the definition of an abstract noun. We often end the lesson reviewing in this way too.

It’s simple and effective, satisfying and enjoyable. It’s very traditional, and from the bemused looks on the faces of new pupils at the start of the year, I would judge that it’s quite unusual nowadays.

Why has this method fallen out of use? Probably because it goes completely against the grain ideologically. It makes very clear that there is definite, fixed knowledge to be acquired, that the teacher decides what that knowledge is, and the teacher works to inculcate it in the whole class through repetitive drilling. Perhaps it puts people in mind of totalitarian programmes of indoctrination. But at the end of the day, we have to ask ourselves whether we really want our pupils to learn a clearly defined body of knowledge. If we do, there are few methods more simple, satisfying and effective than chanting in unison.

Phonics: Why Muddled Methods Persist

The whole story of progressivism is the story of the victory of ideology over reality. One of the central progressive beliefs, which is accepted a priori, is that learning is a natural process. The metaphor of the flower unfurling is often used, or analogies are made with children learning to walk.

This belief is then applied to reading, and people come to think that children can somehow just ‘pick it up’, as they learn their native tongue, or how to walk. But reading is an entirely artificial process, which we have inherited due to our coming at the end of many centuries of human civilisation. If children are going to acquire it reliably and efficiently, they will have to be drilled. That is, they will have to be initiated into certain skills and required to practice them often enough for them to become automatic. A coherent programme of study will have to be faithfully followed and dutifully carried out by our little neophytes.

This is morally repugnant to progressives, because they have swallowed the Romantic fiction about the sacred purity of the child, from which the adult must learn, not the other way around.

And so, for ideological reasons completely unconnected to educational effectiveness, those committed to child centred approaches will always be fundamentally opposed to the thorough application of phonics. Phonics frankly admits that reading is artificial, and a skill that is best drilled and practised in a traditional way. God forbid that the poor little lambs be subjected to a programme in which they chant in unison, or work silently at repetitive exercises. No! That is fascism! Better that they fail to learn to read at all, or only in a haphazard and inefficient way that allows their teachers to continue to hold their cherished beliefs about the sacredness of independent discovery. Let them muddle along with their own sweet little guesses. The vital thing is to avoid poisoning their minds by, horror of horrors, giving them the answer.

Of course our bleeding heart progressives in the early years are currently being forced by  those nasty fascists in the Conservative Party to appear to use phonics. But an OFSTED survey found that 90% of schools were using mixed methods. This means that many, probably the vast majority, have just bolted on a bit of phonics to satisfy statutory requirements. But while they remain committed to child centred ideology, it is simply impossible for a thorough programme of phonics, based on the instructional principle of mastery rather than coverage, to be implemented.

Niceness Is Neglect

We all have habits – things we do without thinking. Without them we couldn’t function, as our working memory would be crowded with thought processes about the simplest of operations. ‘Should I put my left leg or my right leg forward now?’ we would think, and we wouldn’t be able to remember where we were actually going, so demanding would be the process of walking. On the other hand, once we have formed the habit of walking, we are free to think about the place we want to go, and even to admire the scenery, or the outrageous beard of the young man strolling next to us down the station platform.

Habits operate in every area of life, from the simplest to the most complex, because we have an amazing capacity to do things automatically if we do them often enough, combined with an almost limitless long term memory for storing the information needed to perform the processes we have automated.

The main function of elementary education is to fill the memory with needed facts, and automate needed processes, so that as pupils progress to higher levels of cognition, they are free to contemplate more complex ideas without the burden of consciously doing the lower ones.

But this doesn’t happen most of the time, as far as I can tell. Pupils typically come to secondary school with almost nothing in their heads: just a few random facts about the Black Death and the American civil rights movement, washing in a sea of rubbish picked up from popular culture. Many also come to secondary school with very bad habits of behaviour, because people have been so nice to them over the years.

Just as in learning, behaviour is about habit forming. The habit of respectfully listening to a teacher and obeying instructions immediately is not natural to children. It needs to be formed over many iterations, in which doing the opposite – talking over others, ignoring instructions – leads to unpleasant consequences (detentions, withdrawal of privileges, sharp verbal reprimands).

All habits are formed over many years by persistent effort, on the part of the teacher and the pupil. There are those who believe that covering something once or twice means you have taught it. But in discipline just as in learning, coverage does not mean mastery. Just as a pupil does not know their times tables until the answer pops out without a moment’s reflection, so they do not know how to behave until respectful obedience to teachers has become second nature. They do not need to pause and reflect, ‘now, should I obey this person?’. They do it without thinking, because they are in the habit of doing it.

Explaining to pupils that it is selfish and disrespectful to interrupt, to shout out, to distract others, to waste the teacher’s time by ignoring instructions and only obeying them after repeated nagging, if at all, is one thing. When we explain these things we are appealing to pupils’ reason, and I am not saying we should never do so. But we must not confuse such lectures with the long, slow process of training which actually enables pupils to behave respectfully and obediently. That takes years, and with some pupils, many, many instances of suffering the consequences of taking the wrong path. To deliver this essential training, we have to be organised and relentless, both individually and corporately. And we cannot afford to be nice.

To become a true master golfer, you must practise your swing thousands of times. Every time you make a bad shot, you get instant feedback as the ball goes into the shrubs, or the sand, or the lake. Our pupils need to practise listening and obeying in thousands of instances over the years, too, and they need the feedback of unpleasant consequences every time they miss a shot. Not providing them with this training is nothing less than neglect.

Release the Inner Academic

There are no magic tricks: learning takes effort.

There are no magic tricks: learning takes effort.

It’s a commonplace of advertisements. Cookery books proclaim that they will enable us to ‘release the inner chef’. Beauty products are supposed to allow that true inner essence to shine through.

In marketing, the absurdity is very apparent. A cookery book requires its readers to follow instructions meticulously. If they decided to cook based on their inner genius, why would they need to buy the book at all? The artificial, external nature of cosmetics and beauty products is, of course, apparent to anyone who thinks for more than a couple of seconds.

If it’s so obviously nonsense, why do the advertisers persist in using the language of inner essence, and why are people willing to listen to it?

Perhaps it’s something to do with the education people have received. All through their formative years, professionals who supposedly knew what they were talking about served up a ‘product’ which was supposed to release their inner poet, or historian, or scientist, with very little effort on their part. They just had to let the edutainment wash over them, and without arduous repeated practice or the slog of learning key facts, they would somehow release the inner academic.

Of course, it didn’t make them into poets, or historians, or scientists. But it did make them rather good consumers, always looking for the magic trick in a box which was going to save them from putting in any effort.

Grey Suit Is Gonna Get You

Grey SuitI didn’t own a suit until I needed to buy one for my wedding day, and I was rather proud of myself. I had grown up despising ceremony and insisting that it impeded genuine personal expression. I had grown up under the spell of Romanticism, and had I known much about Rousseau, would probably have considered myself a rather noble savage. Even with my suit, I wore Dr Marten boots, and the wedding was a minimal registry office affair.

But despite all of my sub-Romantic ideology, I learned something that day. The ceremony did make a difference, and the part that made the biggest difference was the part that was fixed, the part which was nothing to do with self-expression. After years of sneering at ceremony, I had glimpsed civilisation. I had learned that there was something other than individualism or conformity.

I was struck yesterday by a comment on a blog post about behaviour, in which a teacher described formerly rebellious pupils who had finally got a decent haircut and some smart clothes after years of sloppiness in school: they wanted to get a job. Here we have the two poles of modern experience: anarchic individualism on the one hand, and grey conformity on the other. It is all in Rousseau: the savage has the pleasures of the natural life, but society demands that he surrender them in exchange for material prosperity and safety. Once he has conformed, he will still long for the state of nature. There is a fundamental contradiction between nature and society according to Rousseau, and the only two options are antinomian separation and grey, slavish submission.

So is that all we can hope for? Is there nothing better than pragmatic surrender to the inevitable? Is the grey suit the noblest garment that modern man can wear? Certainly if you look at male teachers nowadays, the grey suit is becoming ever more ubiquitous.

The twentieth century was a schizophrenic century, its split personality divided between the cane and conformity prior to the sixties, and the anarchy of self-expression afterwards. Are we moving back to the fifties? C S Lewis wrote in 1943 that ‘the task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts’ (The Abolition of Man). If we tell our pupils that the point of education is merely to achieve material prosperity, we’re back in the desert again, after spending a few decades in the jungle. Is there no temperate climate for us to inhabit?

The answer lies at least partly in the academic gown. I have written before about why academic gowns should be brought back. The key idea here is that of the dignity of knowledge, which has nothing to do with the personality of the knower, which is entirely outside of himself, objective and external. A gown expresses the dignity of office, not the personal taste of the wearer. By definition, the wearing of gowns cannot be restored by individual teachers. It must be a corporate decision, so that it does not become yet another marker of individual choice.

If teachers were gowned, they would point by their very physical presence to something higher than mere conformity to practical necessity. They would be a sign of hope for escape from the solipsistic, narcissistic culture which offers only two types of prison to our young people. They would point to the belief of every generation prior to the modern era, that civilised society can contribute to man’s perfection.

(Image from Wikimedia).

Being Liberal

by Elliott & Fry, published by  Bickers & Son, woodburytype, circa 1883; published 1886

Matthew Arnold, who saw culture as a ‘study of perfection’

There is a fundamental difficulty for many English speakers in understanding what is meant by the term ‘liberal education’, because the word ‘liberal’ has so many associations which actually run contrary to these educational principles.

In politics, liberalism is associated with the Enlightenment experiment begun by Hobbes and Locke, in which humanity was redefined as being governed by self-interest, with no possibility of a higher motive. All higher motives were dismissed as nothing more than the savage superstitions of primitive culture, from which modern man must liberate himself. The solution to social problems was to organise society so that citizens would be governed by enlightened self-interest: to cancel the old bonds of family, tribe or religion, and replace them with a contract which government and governed agreed was mutually profitable. A business contract replaced the former belief in sacred rights and duties to family and country. Hobbes was convinced this would be accepted by almost everyone on rational grounds because of the terror of life without law enforced from above, which would be nasty, brutish and short.

Hobbes and Locke thus abolished the quest begun three thousand years before by Odysseus: the search for the good life. They announced that no such thing existed. Humanity was to search instead for the life governed by rational principles based on the one indisputable good: self-preservation.

Rousseau added another twist to the abolition of the noble and the sacred in human society. He too believed that society was nothing more than a mutually convenient arrangement with the aim of self-preservation, but he also asserted that because this arrangement was artificial, it was in conflict with the deepest longings of the human heart, which desired to be free of such artifical constraints and return to a state of nature, in which the restraint of civilised behaviour was no longer required. He described society and nature as being in perpetual conflict, and instead of commending the victory of the artificial over the natural, as Hobbes and Locke had done, he lamented this triumph.

Thus liberal democracy: a political system founded on the abolition of the noble and the sacred for the sake of comfortable self-preservation, which is presumed to be the only end of human existence. The contract theory of government leaves no room for heroism, only pragmatism, which has been remarkably effective at providing comfort for our bodies, while starving our souls.

The aims of liberal education are quite different, and really in direct opposition to the aims of liberal democracy. Liberal education seeks to equip young people in their search for the good life, which is not the same as the search for the comfortable compromises offered by our modern culture. The search for the good life necessarily involves asking questions about what is truly good and evil. It posits that mankind has reason, by which he will discover the truth, and offers help in this quest in the form of the greatest thinkers of the ages who have trodden that path before us.

Liberal education sits very awkwardly within a culture dedicated to material comfort and moral compromise, and which teaches its young that above all, they must not make absolute truth statements, because this would be a form of bigoted discrimination against those who might hold different views. In other words, young people are indoctrinated to be indifferent to truth, and are therefore uninterested in the quest which liberal education offers them: the discovery of what is truly good, and the truly good life, through the study of the greatest thinkers. As Allan Bloom commented, ‘nobody believes that the old books do, or even could, contain the truth. So books have become, at best, “culture” i.e., boring’ (The Closing of the American Mind, p58).

Liberal education has been replaced, almost completely, with technical education, so that we have become a nation of technically sophisticated barbarians. Even what traces of liberal studies remain within the universities have been rendered innocuous by the invasion of the humanities by the social sciences, so that students are taught not to look for truth in the old writers, but to view them rather as historical documents of their times. Nothing sits above history; there is no abiding human condition. The connection to tradition which might have survived in the academy is thus neutralised. Any threat it might have presented to the relativist consensus has been extinguished, and the humanities have become an exercise in adopting political poses and contorting classic texts so that they accord with them, or else condemning the great authors of the past because they were nasty racist, sexist bigots. Instead of sitting at the feet of the ancients, we sit in judgement upon them, complacently confident of the superiority of our anti-morality.

This is the key to the success of progressivist theories of education. They have been accepted so widely not because they are effective at producing thoughtful and civilised young people, but because liberal democracy must above all be protected from the dangerous consequences of rational inquiry into the human condition. A generation of young people acquainted with traditional thought, and with reason sharpened by debating with the ancients, would be in danger of rejecting many of the most sacred principles of liberal politics. Above all, they would be in danger of seeking the truth, instead of resting in the tepid waters of indifference and complacency.

Further reading:

Against Enlightenment

Tradition Is Reasonable

The Quest for Knowledge

Time Is Precious; Time Is Costly

HourglassI recently bought a house, and I noticed that the solicitor who did our legal work always spoke quickly on the phone, and never wasted words. It was obvious that his time was valuable. He had many clients and every minute counted; in fact, every minute cost money. A friend of mine who is a City solicitor once described to me the device he had next to his office phone, which he would push every minute, so that clients could be charged very precisely.

A few months ago, my eldest son had a major operation, and we dealt with a number of high-powered doctors at the hospital. Even more than the solicitor, I knew when I was talking with them that they had no time to waste. One would rarely see them for more than a few minutes, in which they would provide a crisp and brief update.

Doctors are only looking after people’s bodies. Teachers have charge of the health and development of something much more important: the soul. The development of the intellect and the will in each one of our pupils will have a far greater impact on their future happiness than anything merely physical (and incidentally, although there may be teachers who are theoretically materialist, in practice all believe in the spiritual dimension, as Allan Bloom noted: ‘there is no real teacher who in practice does not believe in the existence of the soul, or in a magic that acts on it through speech’ (The Closing of the American Mind, p20)).

Despite the supreme importance and urgency of our work, and the fact that our time is rather expensive (though it may not compare to the cost of a city lawyer), teachers’ time is often consumed in activities that bear little relation to their professional purpose, or even undermine it. If senior management could meditate a little more on the significance of their teachers’ work, they might devote more of their efforts to liberating teachers from burdensome tasks, and take more of these duties upon themselves, or abolish them entirely.

Along with a clear commitment to inculcating knowledge using no-nonsense traditional methods, it is their awareness of how precious is the time and energy of teachers which makes Michaela special. Many senior leaders could learn from the example they set in this regard.

But classroom teachers cannot simply point the finger at management. We all need to remind ourselves every day that we hold our pupils’ souls in our hands, and that the time in class is the most precious resource we have.

(Image from Wikimedia)