We Need Better Courses, Not More Adaptive Teaching

In recent years, there has been a gradual move in the English education system away from the darkest days of individualised learning, when teachers were expected to plan different lessons for different pupils, thus ensuring curricular incoherence and chaotic classrooms.

This move is to be welcomed, but we must not be complacent. Even if the insanity of planning thirty different lessons is not being proposed, the residual ideas still haunt many classrooms, to the extent that many teachers still feel that it is somehow wrong to teach the whole class the same thing, and require every pupil to do the same tasks.

As David Didau recently pointed out, on some levels, adapting teaching to the needs of individuals seems to be just ordinary good teaching. If a pupil doesn’t​ understand, surely any teacher would adapt the lesson, in the sense of spending time with that pupil explaining a little more? Or if a significant proportion of pupils don’t understand, isn’t it time to re-teach the whole class, rather than moving on?

But as with many teaching practices that just seem to be obvious, it’s worth thinking harder about this one. If one individual is struggling, should a teacher really interrupt instruction for the remaining twenty-nine in order to give her attention? If the teacher did this regularly, instruction would be so frequently interrupted that overall, less would be learned.

And then there is the problem of confusing performance with learning. At an early stage in a course of instruction, we would expect performance to be lower, but this is an ordinary part of the gradual mastery of knowledge. A good course would already have taken this into account. It would already contain many iterations of key elements, spaced out and interleaved with other material, so that over the whole course, every pupil would have overlearned core propositional and procedural knowledge, and it would be securely stored in their long term memory. If a teacher started ‘adapting’ such a course of instruction because they thought there was too much or too little repetition, then the carefully designed sequence would quickly be undermined.

What is needed is not more adaptive teaching, but better designed courses of instruction, so that everyone can make progress. And it is not fair to expect ordinary classroom teachers to design these courses. This is why curriculum leadership is so vital to improving education.

Reasonable Hope

However much our opponents may wish to portray us as gloomy Gradgrindian schoolmasters, traditional approaches give us grounds for reasonable hope. The positive, practical outworking of a coherent, knowledge-rich curriculum and a consistent culture of discipline is not gloom but a cheerful commitment to hard work and a resilient reaction to setbacks. This is because traditional approaches are based not on how we might wish human beings are, but how they actually are.

A traditional teacher doesn’t get downhearted when a pupil forgets something they studied yesterday. She is fully prepared for this. In fact, she expects it, and she has a plan for review of material, spaced out over time, so that the sharp forgetting curve can be overcome. Instead of complaining or blaming herself, she gets on with applying that programme so that pupils can truly master the knowledge that will enable them to think creatively and critically.

A traditional teacher doesn’t despair when pupils don’t share her love for classic literature. She knows that this love will build slowly over time, as their familiarity with the great stories and characters increases. She knows that curiosity is not immanent but emergent: it is a property that must be cultivated in pupils by giving them ever greater knowledge, so that they can make connections and comparisons, and enter into worlds that they would never encounter without her expert guidance. So she presses on with her programme of rich cultural capital, confident that pupils will one day come to appreciate the inheritance which she is passing on. Some will appreciate it sooner than others, but their ability to appreciate it at the age of thirteen in no way affects its intrinsic value.

A traditional teacher doesn’t take it personally when some pupils misbehave, because she knows that good habits take time to form, and that it is her responsibility to form them in her pupils, by consistent discipline over time. Their poor behaviour is a reflection of their imperfect moral formation, which she and her colleagues are striving to improve. She knows that she will be letting her pupils down if she gives in to the desire to be liked, and fails to apply sanctions consistently. So she perseveres, day in, day out, applying rewards and punishments, and knowing that over time, as part of a whole school culture, her pupils will be given the priceless gift of good habits that will serve them well throughout life.

Traditional ideas give us the strength to be cheerful, positive and persevering, because we know that our pupils are on a long journey towards responsible, knowledgeable adulthood, which will take many years of consistent effort to achieve. We’re not looking for instant results or flashy gimmicks. We’re just looking for steady, faithful effort, in ourselves, and in our pupils.

And we know it isn’t personal. We know that there is something outside ourselves which is worth striving for: we know the value of knowledge and good habits, which do not come naturally, but which must be formed in young minds by our efforts and theirs. Nothing worthwhile comes easily to anyone. We’re ready for the setbacks, and the remedies are already accounted for in our planning.

The fantasy land of progressive ideology is what brings gloom, because its bubbles are bound to burst, and its delights will always be temporary. When you break free into the light of reality, then you can actually begin to make progress towards worthwhile goals.

Should Young Children Learn Through Play?

Deadly Nightshade

Not all of the products of nature are nourishing.

The earliest years of education are those which have been reformed the least. In secondary schools, there is a significant and growing movement in favour of strict discipline and formal instruction. Secondary school teachers are subject teachers, so it’s not so hard to convince them that subject knowledge should be foregrounded and children should have to listen to the expert in the room. But teachers of younger children are much less likely to be subject specialists. Primary school and preschool teachers tend to see themselves as teachers of children, not teachers of subjects.

Of course, understood correctly, there’s nothing wrong with considering oneself as a teacher of children. It would be worrying if any teacher did not say this, if we mean by it that we care about those we teach as human beings. It’s stating the obvious.

But when teachers say that they teach the child, not the subject, they often mean more than the obvious. They mean that education should be led by the child. They mean that they believe in what E D Hirsch calls ‘providential individualism’: the idea that if we allow individuals free and unfettered choices, then things will somehow work out for the best in the end. In other words, saying ‘I teach the child’ is frequently a confession of faith in the progressive creed that education must be child-centred, so that it can take its ‘natural’ course.

Because this is an article of mystical faith, and has no basis in the reality of growing up (how many children are potty trained through child-centred learning?), its adherents are fiercely resistant to alternatives, and tend to react with outrage and disbelief when someone says, for example, that basing education mostly around play is not the best way to introduce the very young to the wonderful world of knowledge outside their immediate experience. They tend to see any attacks on their creed as necessarily emanating from child-hating monsters.

But what do very young children do naturally? Even play is not ‘natural’. Anyone who has cared for more than one young child at a time will know how frequently disputes have to be resolved, and how much effort is required to establish some rules for playing: sharing, for example, is not something which children naturally do. They have to be instructed.

Even playing successfully requires formal instruction and an authority figure to enforce rules, if it is not to descend into the Lord of the Flies type experience I had at nursery school, which is still the most savage of my memories of ‘education’.

Then there are the other wonderful things that can be done with groups of young children, all without their having to start learning to read and write excessively early. They can listen to stories, they can learn songs and poems, they can make their first attempts at drawing. All of these require an authority figure to be in charge and to maintain order if they are to be executed successfully.

Most wonderful of all these aspects of early formal education, if we are thinking about opening minds to the wider world, are the ability to listen to stories and to memorise songs and poems. So much fascinating and valuable knowledge can be built into education from the earliest stages, if we are prepared to take charge and stop idolising children.