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.

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8 thoughts on “Reasonable Hope

  1. I’ve been considering how realism affects my thinking recently. In the end, I am neither a utopian or dystopian (have you noticed that some progressive bloggers have taken this route in lieu of arguments against traditional teaching – think is possibly a natural response based on all or nothing thinking). I don’t think human nature can be perfected but we can work at it so that we are more likely to be better rather than worse human beings.

    On a personal level – really getting in touch with reality – even the painful aspects is what finally helped me become a happier person. As with many aspects of progressivism – the ends they wish for simply can’t be achieved with the paths they choose because of the emphasis on the immediate.

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  2. I think your use of the word “traditional” in this piece is deserved of some clarification. I loved your descriptions of the “traditional” teacher – but the more I read your piece, the more I couldn’t help feeling that you are actually describing a very effective and innovative teacher. I agree fully in all that you say about content, knowledge and love for learning certain things. You suggest that these processes are closely managed and developed by the teacher’s attitudes and approaches to their students’ learning. This to me is what 21st Century teaching is all about – some may even call it progressive! Sometimes the word “traditional” is seen as a curse in modern teaching – and the negative connotations that it draws up, for me, are things like inflexible approaches to learning, taking behavioural issues in a personal way, a lack of understanding of the teenage-brain. Your “traditional” teacher overcomes these challenges. To me – that it effective.

    Thank you for such a thought-provoking article.

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    • Traditionalism always develops. Handing on the inheritance faithfully requires each successive generation to renew that inheritance. Those who see it as fixed and inflexible have no real understanding of what traditionalism really is.

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  3. “…she has a plan for review of material, spaced out over time, so that the sharp forgetting curve can be overcome.”

    By far the simplest and most effective means of review is periodic testing. When pupils know these are imminent, they will soon learn to test themselves, especially if the teacher has taken the time to explain the research on the testing effect.

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  4. Excellent piece. My only comment: marketing. I would always suggest using the world ‘effective’ rather than ‘traditional’. For one thing, the word ‘traditional’ does not invoke in everyone the same response it evokes in the readers of this blog. I had plenty of ‘traditional’ teachers in the 1950s who were not very effective teachers, for various reasons.

    And, of course, a teacher who wants to be effective (or ‘traditional’, if you like) is going to have a very hard time if the environment is a ‘progressive’ one, where the children unlearn in other classrooms, the behavior that the effective/traditional teacher is trying to inculcate.

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    • I know many have a rather strong allergic reaction to the word ‘traditional’. But it really does need to be reclaimed. The new traditionalism is a conscious recovering of the best of the past, with a fresh impetus from the findings of cognitive science.

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Thoughtful and reasonable discussion is always welcome.

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