The New Traditionalism: Kodaly and Hirsch Compared

Kodaly Stamp

One day, Hirsch will be on stamps too.

In my ‘About the Author’ page, I stress the excellence of my academic qualifications to show that I am not attacking a system that has hurt me in an obvious way. I am attacking a system that has heaped praise upon me, a system in which I have excelled, and despite all of the laurels I have won, it is a system which has left me ignorant of many things which are vital to a proper education. It is a system which allowed me to pick up bits and bobs of intellectual and literary history, and manipulate them into impressive arguments, all the while leaving me ignorant of most of the great heritage of Western civilisation, and hardly even aware that such ignorance was a problem. If I was getting the grades, what did it matter? I roamed freely, and I could dazzle with a touch of Proust here, and a smattering of Biblical quotation there, but I lacked foundations. It wasn’t even a house made of sand; it was a beat-up old camper van, destined to break down at some point and leave me stranded in the wilderness.

My wife has been through a similar journey. As a talented pianist, she had been through university and, despite doing very well, always felt that there was something fundamentally missing from her education. She could play the piano in an impressive way, and even won first prize for her recital one year, but she couldn’t sight sing or make sense of harmony. These skills are fundamental to real musical literacy, and yet no-one was insisting that they were vital to becoming a musician, or providing classes or material to help. She was like someone who has learned to read mostly by guessing or memorising words, but their lack of phonic awareness constantly hampers them, and eventually places an insuperable barrier to further progress. Trying to learn very difficult piano works without real musical literacy was so arduous that despite all of her achievements, my wife lost interest in becoming a performing pianist. She tried teaching the piano, but didn’t believe in it, because she was still operating in the same system which had failed her. How could she hand on this stunted education to the next generation?

Then, at the age of 33, my wife discovered Kodaly, the musical equivalent of proper phonics instruction. As a composer and performer, Zoltán Kodály had a longstanding interest in folk music traditions. This awareness of the power of an oral tradition influenced his work to improve school methods in his native Hungary. When he became aware of the poor state of music education, he started collecting best practices in music teaching when on tour around the world. These best practices were then gradually compiled by Kodaly and his friends to make what is known as the Kodaly method, or concept. It is a systematic way of teaching musical literacy, understood as being the skill of ‘hearing what you see, and seeing what you hear.’ Musicianship is developed by singing. Children first learn basic concepts of pulse and pitch through lots of singing games, and progress through learning sol-fa hand-signs and letters to reading staff notation.

There is a committed body of Kodaly enthusiasts in Britain: they come together at workshops and classes to be introduced to the concept, or to learn more, or just to get encouraged. These workshops are full of music teachers who aren’t quite sure why they feel music education is a bit off track, but they know something is wrong, and are looking for an answer. Sounds a bit like the Saturday education conferences that are springing up around the country . . .

My wife was an enthusiastic convert to this systematised version of traditional methods, as I was a year ago when I read Christodoulou and Hirsch and realised the importance of core knowledge and direct instruction. She immediately perceived that the Kodaly method, if studied properly, would provide her with the missing heart of her own musical formation. If a school had the courage to adopt a Kodaly based programme, then with careful and faithful implementation, they would achieve impressive results after a few years. It would also prove the ineffectiveness of what otherwise passes for good practice, and would challenge people to expect far more out of music education than they ever thought possible.

If you are interested in finding out more about Kodaly, here are a few links:

The Kodaly Centre of London is David and Yuko Vinden’s project. David is Britain’s most distinguished Kodaly educator and he runs courses from his base in Northwood Hills, Middlesex, but he also does workshops tailored to the needs of groups which approach him. My wife went to a one-day introduction on Kodaly in Manchester, which was excellent.

The Len Tyler Music School in Farnborough and its vicinity is, in some ways, the musical equivalent of Michaela. It teaches music classes to children according to the Kodaly principles. Len has written his own courses, just as Michaela have found it necessary to put together their own materials. He has a lot of time to give people interested in implementing Kodaly practice. After my wife had been to one of his workshops, she sat in on some of the classes at his music school. It was soon clear that the children had core musical concepts in place, and their level of musicianship was better than many older, more technically accomplished instrumentalists. Is this sounding familiar to anyone who has visited Michaela?

The Kodaly Method could be seen as part of the new traditionalism. Perceiving the desolation of modern education, some brave souls have worked to revive traditional methods. They have found it necessary to add a level of systematisation to enable the restoration of something that previously depended upon a shared culture, much of which was oral. But there are still remnants of traditional traditionalism which have survived into the modern era, in the training of Anglican choristers. The level to which choristers are trained exposes the lamentable mediocrity of standard musical education. They can sight read; they can sight sing; they can harmonise. They are in a class of their own. Choristers develop thorough musicianship skills because, as well as all the singing they do, they receive regular musicianship classes. The success of choristers as musicians (as well as the positive impact it has on them in other ways) testifies to the effectiveness of their training and the importance of lots of singing.

Thorough oral drill survives in some places as a thread of a great tradition stretching back into antiquity. But for the rest of us, we need evangelists like Kodaly, Hirsch or Engelmann and their disciples to revive it, and to create materials and institutions which bring to our modern educational wilderness what had previously flourished within a shared traditional culture that did not need codifying.

Given the proven success of the systematised traditionalism of the Kodaly method and of traditional choral training, one might wonder why such approaches are not more widely adopted by county music services. Perhaps there is a fear of being shown up? My wife has herself experienced the humiliation of recognising her own inferiority next to those who have been properly trained, and do not have to struggle as she does. The resentment frequently expressed against Michaela may have similar roots. Better methods are certainly not universally welcomed with open arms. There are many reasons why the status quo prevails, however compelling the evidence for reform. In the end, we must overcome our resentment at those who do better than us, and resolve instead to learn from them.

The Emptiness of the English Curriculum

Old BooksA new science teacher at my school reported to me a conversation which he had had with his pupils. They had asked with astonishment how he knew what they had studied before, when he had just arrived. He explained to them that there is a national curriculum which specifies the content to be studied in science, so pupils in different schools essentially study the same material.

I don’t know what that’s like. I teach English, in which the national curriculum doesn’t get much beyond ‘read some stuff and write some stuff’, once you’ve removed all the jargon and flannel. It isn’t until public examinations are being taken that things start to take a slightly more specific form.

I’m working on creating an English curriculum which builds knowledge of literature and literary history in a coherent, chronological way, so I will actually know more about what my pupils know from year to year, and they will be able to establish a mental schema into which they can fit new knowledge about literature across the ages. I would welcome a national curriculum for English that genuinely helped teachers build resources which they could share across schools. I would welcome a national curriculum for English that created a common body of knowledge, for teachers and for pupils.

There are many problems with curricular incoherence, as E D Hirsch has pointed out. One of them is that when pupils move between schools, there is no common body of knowledge that they are expected to know. When a new pupil arrives in my class, I just have to assume they know nothing about literary history and classic literature. It’s a pretty safe assumption, frankly, given the fluff which fills the English curriculum in most schools prior to GCSE. If they join in year eight or nine, it’s hard on them to have to try to catch up with the years of hard work my pupils have put into mastering core knowledge.

Specifying content and then testing it through national examinations is currently the only way in which coherence is established in the English curriculum. I am very much in favour of the testing of specific knowledge in English. Given the emptiness and incoherence of so much English teaching around the country, it can only be a benefit actually to specify something so that the years aren’t completely wasted on vacuous ‘creativity’. The howls of outrage with which testing of grammar and punctuation in primary school is greeted show how much resistance there is to the government’s, actually very mild, efforts to turn English into a real subject with some hard content that can actually be tested objectively. What, you actually want them to learn something specific? How off-putting!

With a significant increase in specific, objective testing, there would be some chance that at some point in the future, I would be able to depend just a little more on the pupils who arrive in my classroom knowing something definite. But for the time being, I just have to start from scratch and build the knowledge myself.

Our Pupils Need Discipline, Not Management


School life is full of challenges and struggles, and that’s the way it should be. If you’re not struggling and striving, you’re not growing and maturing. There’s the challenge of mastering the foundations of a subject by committing core knowledge to memory. Then there’s the challenge of applying that foundational knowledge to increasingly complex subject matter. There are challenges on the sports field and when public speaking must be done. But the most difficult and most important challenge is the challenge of doing the right thing, whether you feel like it or not.

How can we help our pupils to overcome their personal desires and do their duty, and thereby live happy and fruitful lives? How can we help them become the kind of parents who dutifully care for small children when they wake at night, sick or frightened, the kind of employees who dutifully rise punctually from bed so that they arrive at work on time, the kind of employers who dutifully pay a fair wage, even if it means less wealth for themselves?

If our goal is to help our pupils become adults who readily take on responsibility for others, then we will need to embrace discipline. Discipline means giving orders that must be obeyed, regardless of personal feelings. When a pupil submits to discipline, they are strengthening vital moral muscles: they are doing something which they may not wish to do, but which they have a duty to do. They may wish to chat to their neighbour in class, but under discipline, they must work silently. Thus they learn to control their tongue, something which will help them enormously later in life when professional or personal discretion is required. They may wish to snack on sweets in class, but under discipline, they must wait until break before eating. Thus they learn to overcome their appetite, which will help them be healthy and avoid addiction throughout their life.

Discipline works precisely by requiring obedience to authority, not by using persuasion and seeking agreement. It is thus fundamentally different from behaviour management, which offers hundreds of techniques of horse-whispering to manipulate pupils into doing what we want. Discipline presents a clear choice to pupils: do this or face the consequences. They must thus exercise their will in order to obey, and it is through exercising the will that the will becomes stronger. But if we aim to engineer a situation in which pupils are doing what is required without having made a clear choice, then we are failing to give them the opportunity to exercise, and thus to strengthen, their will.

If persuasion is used, or agreement is sought, then pupils are not gaining vital practice in overcoming their own personal convenience for the sake of duty. Without this training, they are in much greater danger of living all their lives as slaves to their emotions and desires. They are in danger of being incapable of maintaining personal commitment, of holding down a steady job, of resisting the temptation to overindulge in food and alcohol.

Teachers who insist on discipline are sometimes accused of wishing to destroy the freedom of those under their authority, but precisely the opposite is true. A young person who is in the habit of overcoming personal desires in order to be obedient to authority will grow into an adult who is able to overcome their personal desires in order to serve others and take responsibility. They will have the strength of character needed to be truly free, which means, to be able to make the right choices and carry them out, however personally inconvenient this might be.

Who is more free, the soldier who overcomes his fear and fights bravely for his country, or the one who is overcome by his emotions and paralysed by fear at the crucial moment? Whom do we admire, the brave hero who sacrificed himself for others, or the coward who hung back, worried about his personal safety? Do we say the soldier was merely a slave because he happened to be obeying orders when he sacrificed personal safety for the sake of his country and his comrades?

Freedom does not mean doing what you feel like doing. Animals do that. Human beings make choices and exercise their will. Animals must be managed and manipulated. Human beings can submit to discipline, and thus develop the strength of character needed for true freedom. If we really care about our pupils, then we will use firm discipline. They may not understand why we were so tough on them until after they have left school and taken on adult responsibilities. But it’s our duty not to seek the easy gratification of being buddies with them now, because we want the best for them in the long term.

The Dangers of Wall Displays


This chap’s allowed on my wall

I came under fire in a previous school for the bareness of my walls, and so to fill them with colour, I had pupils do . . . posters! I won’t speculate here about whether the reprimands I received had anything to do with my being the only male member of the English department in that school. I will say though that I was astonished by the detail of the displays in some of the other English classrooms. The teachers had evidently put a huge amount of effort into them. They were works of loving craftsmanship, sorry, craftswomanship, which one could have gazed at for hours.

But there’s the rub. Do you want your pupils gazing at complicated displays, with words and pictures swooping around in all directions? The chances are, they spend a lot of their free time staring at complex moving pictures that are even more dazzling and alluring than your wall displays, so perhaps they won’t be particularly interested in any case. But if they do become interested, then their interest is being taken away from the most important person in the room: the teacher.

Serious subject matter and challenging concepts require total focus and concentration. Whole class teaching, the only way to give your pupils maximum attention and keep them reliably on task, means that you want their eyes and their minds to be focused on the the one doing that teaching, not some lovely papier mache volcano that’s exploding poetic words out of your wall.

If they have to be beautified, walls could contain a few classic works of art, or maps, which would have pedagogical value. I like putting quotations on my wall, such as Plato’s, ‘The first and greatest victory is to conquer yourself’. For years, I’ve had Atticus Finch’s comment that ‘The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience’. I also have Martin Luther King’s words from the letter from Birmingham Jail: ‘I agree with St Augustine, that an unjust law is no law at all’.

At least if my pupils’ eyes wander a little to the side, they’ll see something edifying, and in a font large enough to be read from their seats. But they know the drill: the ‘T’ in SLANT means ‘track the speaker’. They’ll earn demerits if they let their gazes wander too often. Why should I make it more difficult for them to focus on the teacher? Why should I fill my walls with distractions, when I want them to read the book in front of them, write silently in their exercise books, engage properly in whole class discussion, or listen attentively to my explanations?

Florid wall displays are what moral theologians have traditionally called an ‘occasion of sin’. They place pupils in a situation where it is very difficult to do the right thing. So for whose benefit are so many walls being plastered with so much colour, at a cost of so many teacher hours? Surely it couldn’t be so managers and inspectors can admire them?

The Tories Spoiled Their Fun: Two Knights Complain

In A Generation of Radical Educational Change, education grandee Sir Tim Brighouse laments the end of the golden age in education, which he places in the decades following the Second World War, and which he characterises as being based on ‘optimism and trust’. During these years, education policy was, in practice, mostly controlled by a handful of bureaucrats and union officials, as ‘Secretaries of State and local councillors’ came and went. So much for local accountability, or any kind of political accountability.

It was a comfortable time for those who worked their way up the bureaucratic hierarchy. They had a lot of fun stitching things up according to their ideology, and wangling lots of government cash for all kinds of projects. There was never even an attempt to work out whether any of these projects helped anyone to learn anything. After the Plowden Report, it was just assumed that progressive and child centred ideology was the way forward.

Sir Tim mentions a raft of initiatives and activities in which he engaged while he was Oxfordshire’s Chief Education Officer. He never makes any attempt to justify them on the basis of actually improving education, but one thing he is sure about: ‘we enjoyed ourselves’.

And that’s what matters, isn’t it? As long as everyone’s having a good time, who cares? Learning stuff is, like, hard work, and so’s trying to determine whether all those millions of government cash actually had any impact, positive or negative, on the knowledge and skills of young people.

However much the education establishment howls, the ordinary people have had their say on the stitch-up that prevailed for so many years. In the same collection of essays, after indulging in apocalyptic language implying the onset of a totalitarian dystopia, Sir Peter Newsam solemnly asks if any political party is prepared to ask the electorate whether they support the increased powers of the Secretary of State. Well, the Conservatives promised to continue the creation of free schools and academies in their 2015 manifesto, and to the surprise and horror of the liberal left, they won. The people have spoken. But since when did the likes of Sir Peter care about the views of ordinary people? They have not been admitted to the hallowed halls of educational expertise. They have fascist ideas about teaching proper spelling and times tables, and maybe, who knows, memorising some important dates in British history. Somehow they refuse to be enlightened and leave these nasty, reactionary, right wing notions behind.

Should Teaching Methods Be Prescribed?

Magic Wand

There was some discussion yesterday about how different teachers could get results using different methods. Laura McInerney tweeted a couple of times about this, commenting that ‘If a teacher can get amazing pupil outcomes from using films, Mr Men, constant teacher talk, or rote learning, then power to their elbow.’, and ‘The idea that it’s impossible to effectively use any, or all, of these techniques is to lack imagination. Teaching comes in many guises.’

Partly in response to this, I tweeted that ‘Doubtless exceptional teachers can get results with any method. But we need to promote methods that work sustainably for ordinary people.’

Laura was deliberately listing methods associated with both sides of the educational debate, and positing that they could work for different teachers, so why be prescriptive about pedagogy?

I was trying to point out that it is helpful to highlight that some methods really do work more reliably, and they work for ordinary mortals who frequently get colds in term time and do not wish to spend every evening creating hand-crafted resources, marking mountains of exercise books, and so on.

When a more traditional approach is suggested, such as every teacher in a school using an agreed set of resources, or a preference for explicit instruction and practice rather than discovery learning, there tend to be cries of outrage about prescription and the destruction of teacher autonomy. There seems to be a general suspicion among teachers that every time Nick Gibb talks about using textbooks, he’s cooking up a plan to impose a standard set of teaching resources on the whole country, once he’s got them all under his thumb through the academisation programme.

But things like standardised resources really help. Is it really better to have every teacher laboriously creating their own work sheets and card sorts and powerpoint slides, when you could simply have materials that everyone uses, and there could be consistency, and teachers could collaborate more effectively over using these shared resources, and actually support each other? We have to think about what is actually going to help the largest number of teachers achieve the best results. Simple, traditional methods, with agreed-upon resources, are sustainable and effective.

It’s the responsibility of school leaders to make the decisions about what is going to help all pupil make progress in their schools. This is a heavy responsibility, and given that they bear this weight of accountability, they really should be at liberty to ban Mr Men and insist upon shared resources. Responsibility without authority is useless, and really torturous. The government is giving school leaders the power to exercise their authority properly, and to implement effective methods. This is what gives me hope for the future.

The best response to my tweet was Katharine Birbalsingh’s. She questioned what I meant by ‘exceptional’. Did I mean ‘magical’? She’s right. There really are methods that are so ineffective that something preternatural would be required to overcome their limitations. Letting pupils ‘discover’ when subject matter could simply be explained and then mastered through modelling and practice really is a disgraceful waste of everybody’s time.

With increasing school autonomy, it’s up to school leaders to remove ineffective methods and chaotic curricula, and build resources and pedagogy that enable every pupil to make progress under every teacher. Not just the exceptional pupils, and not just the exceptional teachers.