Why Fixed Routines Are Liberating

Needle GrooveMost progress is made slowly, over a long period of time, by dutiful, steady, hard work. When I worked in project management, I knew the people who delivered on time were well organised and methodical. They quietly got on with it. They were unlikely to be promoted. Perhaps they didn’t want to be promoted. They had been doing the same thing for years, and so they were really good at it.

Routine makes us more efficient, because it makes many more processes automatic, freeing up our working memory for the real thinking. Using the same lesson pattern while varying the material means that our pupils’ attention, and our attention, will be better focused on what really matters: the learning. But if we are preoccupied with inventing and implementing ever new methods of delivery, this is enormously distracting.

The complexity should be in the subject matter, not the delivery. A commentator on a recent post of mine said that in the private sector, he was told to KISS everything, and it worked. KISS means ‘keep it simple, stupid’. Excellent advice; would that it were more widely disseminated to new teachers.

There should be plenty of thinking going on in our classroom, but we should work to ensure that as little as possible of this thinking is focused on making our pupils work out how to respond to our latest jazzy teaching technique, and as much as possible is focused on the really interesting material we are delivering.

Likewise, our planning should be very little concerned with methods of delivery. We should work to establish routines that we use day in, day out, so that we can focus our minds on what really makes a difference: curriculum design. With less time spent doing fiddly planning, we will have more time to build our own subject knowledge too, a vital and often neglected component of our effectiveness as teachers.

Well established routines also help new teachers enormously. They have much more to think about than experienced colleagues, and so if we can provide them with a tried and trusted framework which is already familiar to pupils, their lessons will run much more smoothly and effectively.

Routines can be tweaked, but they should never be scrapped and replaced overnight. Small, incremental, organic change should be the norm. We want to fine-tune our routines to make them even more effective. But unless we use them faithfully, we’ll never achieve this fine-tuning.

Why would anyone be opposed to using the same routine over and over again, when there are so many benefits? Perhaps the most common objection is boredom. The assumption here is that routine means sameness. Of course it doesn’t, because the material being taught varies endlessly. When the mind is focused on this, engaged with this, there should be no danger of tedium. And keeping other, less important factors constant sharpens that focus.

I do wonder though whether some teachers object to routine because they believe teaching should be fun just as much as they believe this about learning. Being steady, organised and methodical just sounds too much like hard work.


Rote Learning Is Ace

Julius Caesar

He had to do plenty of rote learning as a lad. And yet his mind was not destroyed . . .

Rote learning is one of the most derided practices in education. It stands accused of deadening minds, of filling children’s heads with isolated, useless pieces of information, of destroying the joy of learning . . .

What is this evil, fascist practice which poisons the minds of youth? Well, it just means learning by repetition. You say something over and over again until it sticks.

And it does work, especially when done with a group of other people in regular, spaced out practice sessions. Chanting the alphabet, the times tables, or a poem together with a class will certainly make them stick in the mind after a certain amount of time.

So why should this practice of learning by repetition be seen as evil? As joyless? Rote learning is blamed for so many evils because it is seen as intrinsically connected to teaching which shuns understanding in favour of mere factual recall.

Now, have you ever met a teacher who shuns understanding? I haven’t. This mythical teacher is one of those nasty bogeymen invented by progressive ideologues to attack simple, effective methods that ordinary laymen can understand and apply.

When my year seven classes learned the ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’ speech last term, they mostly learned it by repetition. We began almost every lesson by chanting it together, and it stuck. Some of them learned it more quickly than others, but by the end of the term, they could all recite it.

We didn’t only repeat the words. We discussed them. I explained them. But most importantly, we brought them to life by our vigorous recitation. Some pupils even began to invent a series of actions to go along with them (you can imagine how they acted out ‘I thrice presented him a kingly crown’, for example). They really enjoyed themselves.

Nevertheless, however much discussion, explanation, or imaginative engagement there had been, they wouldn’t have learned the speech properly without plenty of good old fashioned rote learning.

Hurray for rote learning, I say.

The Joy of Discovery Learning

Fire drillThankfully, we have abolished drill and repeated practice from our classrooms. Now, instead of the deadening submission to adult authority, we have the liveliness and joy of youthful discovery. The surprise and delight of finding many different answers to problems has replaced the tyrannical imposition of so-called ‘correct’ answers upon our citizens of tomorrow.

This joy of discovery must now spread to every area of education. Shockingly, the mind-numbing experience of obeying explicit instructions and working silently still exists in some areas of school life. We cannot afford to destroy the free decision making capacities of our democratic youth with such retrograde practices.

A notable example of the survival of right wing, reactionary approaches is the continued practice of fire drill. Fire drill! The very name should send tremors of disgust through all free thinking, right minded people. Unbelievably, even though we are living in the twenty-first century, we are still subjecting our pupils to the psychological trauma of obeying orders and marching silently to the fire assembly area. We might as well make them wear brown shirts and goose step out of their classrooms. The fire bell might as well be replaced by broadcasting ‘The Flight of the Valkyries’ across the school announcement system. This tyranny must stop!

We cannot expect any student to take an interest in a problem imposed upon him by authority, so we must first create a real life problem for students to solve. This could most effectively be achieved by burning down one of the school buildings. To add a further stimulation for real life problem solving, we should ensure one of the cleaning staff is trapped in the building which burns down. Their cries of agony as the flames engulf them will inspire our students to form discussion groups to resolve the fire risk problem.

At no point should we intervene and impose ‘correct’ answers on these groups. Young people’s creativity must not be stifled by artificial adult interference. It may be that they decide to conduct further pyrotechnic experiments, perhaps making use of one of the less popular students. The creative, problem-solving capacities of the young are so powerful that they often come up with surprising approaches that no adult would have considered.

I have no doubt that once the stifling conservatism of the traditional approach is removed, our young people will come up with exciting new ways of dealing with emergencies. And of course, thanks to the innovative methods used, they will actually remember the lessons they have learned. The sacrifice of a school cleaner and one or two of the less popular students is a small price to pay for the true joy of discovery learning!

Direct Instruction: The Great Equaliser

SnowflakeClever people are good at identifying patterns. That’s why aptitude tests always include exercises in pattern spotting. Whatever the pattern might be, the sharper people are more likely to spot it with less need to have it explained to them.

But whatever someone’s aptitude, they can grasp a pattern if it is clearly explained to them and they practise sufficiently.

That’s the difference between look and say and systematic phonics. A clever person will teach themselves to decode letters if they see enough print. They are spotting the patterns, and effectively giving themselves a course in phonics. But someone who is less good at identifying patterns will only know how to read the whole words that they have seen, or very similar ones. Because they have not been systematically trained in phonics, and they do not have the ability to teach themselves to decode, they are crippled by their ignorance of the alphabetic code, and unable to read unfamiliar words.

In the middle of the twentieth century, after several decades of look and say dominance, many American educators were openly saying that a large proportion of the population were simply non-literate. They had come to this conclusion because they had been using methods that only worked effectively with the most intelligent pupils. They had been using methods which denied effective reading skills to many, while giving a disproportionate advantage to a cognitive elite. This, of course, suited the requirements of big business and big government — the bureaucrats and corporations who had pushed this approach — as it created easily managed and manipulated employees and consumers for business, and easily led clients for the swollen state apparatus.

But many parents weren’t happy with it. It had been foisted upon their children without their say. Reactionary fools that they were, they didn’t like to be told that their children were ‘non-literate’, and, in opposition to the stifling hegemony of the progressive pedagogical experts, they still wanted their children to learn their ABCs.

This battle has been going on for a century. It’s still going on, on both sides of the Atlantic, despite Jeanne Chall’s research and Project Follow Through, because of progressive repugnance for the principles of direct instruction: whole class teaching, careful sequencing, repetitive drill, and large amounts of practice. If you think children should go at their own pace, and that learning should be fun, you just won’t want to teach like this. Especially because, as a university graduate, you’re one of those people who spotted the patterns with little help, so why shouldn’t your pupils do the same?

The issues at stake in the reading wars apply across the curriculum. Will we use thorough, explicit and carefully sequenced methods that allow everyone to make progress, or will we continue with an incoherent curriculum in which only the highly intelligent can spot the patterns?

Vocational Education: A Sinister Agenda


W E B Du Bois, who protested against the relegation of African Americans to vocational tracks in the public schools.

The calls for improved vocational education date at least as far back as the 1944 education act in Britain. As usual, the USA was ahead. Already, in the thirties, high schools were abandoning their traditional role of providing intellectual growth to all, and were instead transforming into sorting houses, placing young people onto different vocational tracks, mostly according to the results of aptitude tests.

But however many times the great and the good have called for more provision of vocational education in Britain, it has never really taken off. Whatever the experts say, most ordinary people continue to view academic qualifications as the most reliable route to professional success, and continue to choose them whenever they are available.

American school administrators in the thirties faced similar problems. Even the children of farmers and factory workers showed a persistent tendency to choose traditional academic subjects instead of the vocational studies which the experts had decided were more ‘suited to their needs’. The campaign to deprive the masses of a liberal education, funded generously by the Rockefeller Foundation, among others, had to try many tricks to wean the people of their vicious tendency to choose algebra over agricultural study.

One fine example of enlightened practice, which perhaps we could still learn from today, happened in Hawaii during the thirties. A large number of immigrant plantation workers had arrived from the Philippines, and their children, instead of following a vocational track, insisted on pursuing what were increasingly called ‘college preparatory’ studies. The poor ignorant fools had some notion that they did not wish to spend their lives labouring on a plantation.

Politicians and business leaders were alarmed. The cost of funding the high schools was soaring, and they were in danger of losing their supply of cheap labour. The high schools complied with their wishes,and succeeded in switching many of the Philippine young people onto practical studies, which presented far less danger of their aspiring to professional work. One high school principal noted with satisfaction how easily this had been achieved, because the poor English of these students’ parents meant that they barely understood what the schools were up to (see Ravitch, Left Back, p268-269).

It’s easy to understand why big business would be in favour of increased vocational education. It is a way of shifting some of their training costs onto the public, and preparing a large number of young people to be docile employees, without the intellectual tools to question corporate policy.

No wonder so much corporate funding has poured into promoting progressive educational ideas over the years.

Next time you hear someone suggesting that it is somehow ‘cruel’ to ‘impose’ academic studies on those destined to be humble labourers in a corporate call centre, remember those plantation workers in Hawaii. Or think, for that matter, of the African Americans who were routinely shifted onto vocational tracks as progressive ideas spread. Why should anyone be denied the opportunity for intellectual growth?

Laboratory Schools

Test tubesA tactic deployed by progressives to ‘prove’ the efficacy of their novel methods was to set up ‘laboratory schools’. This is one of many examples of progressives using scientific language to describe something completely unscientific.

The word ‘laboratory’ suggests a calm, controlled environment in which scientists can establish ideal conditions for testing their hypotheses. Variables would need to be carefully monitored to ensure their were no false positives, because of cause, the scientists wouldn’t want to embarrass themselves by producing invalid results.

Nothing could be further from the reality of these supposed scientific experiments in progressive education. Institutions such as Columbia Teachers College’s Lincoln School (founded 1917) were staffed by enthusiastic and highly qualified staff, and the student population was overwhelmingly drawn from upper middle class families. The Lincoln School was generously funded by the Rockefeller Foundation’s General Education Board. Class sizes were small and behaviour was not an issue. It’s hard to imagine how much more could have been done to fix the results of the progressive experiment, beyond actually fabricating them.

Classroom research is dubious at the best of times. Classroom research promulgated by those who have already made up their minds about methods is worthless.

It was to laboratory schools such as Lincoln that the credulous administrators from the hinterlands repaired during their summer breaks, to be inspired and motivated to implement the ‘latest results of educational science’. Then they returned to the backwoods to mass produce this ‘science’, and the children of the poor were deprived of traditional, sequential instruction, as their teachers were required to introduce Kilpatrick’s ‘project method’, and academic subjects were removed or merged into ‘social studies’ programmes.

The clientele of Lincoln School, hailing from wealthy, literate families, were not likely to suffer much from the experiment being performed upon them. It was the millions of ordinary people who felt the heavy impact of the ideological campaign to discredit liberal education. Given the devastation caused by their philanthropic efforts, one might almost think that the corporate patrons of the movement were more interested in generating consumers and employees who were easy to manipulate than knowledgeable, confident citizens.

(Image from Wikimedia).