Creating a New Professional Paradigm

The professionalisation of teaching has gone hand in hand, historically, with the promotion of progressive ideas. One of the first campaigners was the American Horace Mann in the nineteenth century, and he succeeded in securing better pay and conditions for teachers, but at the expense of the simplicity of teaching. He introduced pedagogical notions which were beyond the ken of ordinary folk, thus developing a mystical aura around the teaching profession which would justify increased salaries and more job security for public educators, as well as the taxes which would pay for them.

This process went into overdrive in the twentieth century, as the professors of Columbia Teachers College carved out intellectual ground based on the exaltation of pedagogy in ever new and different forms, at the expense of subject knowledge. The politics of teacher professionalisation are thus deeply troubling from their inception. These early professors of education knew that they had to create their own territory, otherwise they would be seen as simply adjuncts to the subject-based university departments already in existence. This they did by inventing all kinds of new and complicated methods of teaching in which they could claim expertise, and derogating the transmission of ‘mere facts’.

In this view, teachers entering the profession are entering a sort of gnostic priesthood, and the sacred mysteries into which they are initiated are all of the mumbo-jumbo that comes under the title of pedagogy. While this intellectual trickery persists, we will not make much progress in placing knowledge at the centre of the curriculum and at the centre of our profession.

As a traditional teacher, I want to reclaim the essential simplicity of education as what G K Chesterton called ‘truth in the state of transmission’. But this does not mean the destruction of teaching as a profession. It means creating a new professional paradigm, which is primarily based around subject rather than pedagogical knowledge. It means teachers who spend as much time as they can developing their knowledge of the subjects they teach, rather than filling spreadsheets with pointless data or writing endless comments in five different colour pens.

It can be rather daunting to start thinking of yourself as a subject expert, rather than a pedagogical expert. But I implore my professional colleagues to see the beauty of this: wouldn’t you rather spend your time learning more and more about really interesting stuff, so that you could explain it better to your pupils? Has the model of pedagogical expertise really brought you, or your pupils, any joy?

Not All Reading Is Equal

We often hear about how important it is for children to develop a love of reading. But like so many statements about education, a vital ingredient is missing from this apparently laudable aspiration. It is comparable to bland proclamations that children should learn to be creative. What is missing is specific content.

Creating what? Reading what?

There are many things which I would not want my pupils to read. Reading is not an end in itself, but a means to an end. And the end is knowledge.

There are many kinds of knowledge which reading can bring, which are difficult to access in other ways. Great literature brings knowledge about the fundamental questions of human existence. Historical writing, scientific writing, philosophical writing and even journalism can carry new insights into the nature of the universe and humanity’s place within it. A fluent reader can gain access to thought that will open her mind and raise her aspirations. But she can also gain access to fake news and poisonous propaganda. Reading can poison the mind as well as nourishing it.

There is nothing intrinsically good about reading. It depends what you are reading, and it depends on how accurately you can interpret it.

Of course we want all our pupils to be able to decode fluently. But beyond this, we must think about how we nourish their thinking so that they can use this wonderful opportunity to expand their minds, not to poison or pollute them. A regular diet of knowledge will give them a taste for reality, so that they are increasingly able to discriminate between different authors, and reject what is false.

Liberated by Cognitive Science

Understanding the essentials of cognitive architecture is a wonderfully liberating thing. So many of our misconceptions about education, our own and our pupils’, can be laid to rest.

The first, and most important principle is the understanding of what education actually is: changes in long term memory. This simple definition can and should be refined, but it’s an essential starting point. If you haven’t remembered it, you haven’t learned it. You were wasting your time, as teacher, as a pupil, if the knowledge which you were supposed to acquire has not at least begun to make its way into your long term memory.

This affects the questions we ask about teaching. Instead of chasing endless proxies for learning, we begin to focus on the thing itself. Instead of asking ‘were the pupils engaged?’ or ‘did they enjoy the lesson?’ or ‘did they write lots in their books?’ we can simply ask ‘what did they remember?’ In the end, that’s all that matters.

But that question logically leads to others. If we are interested in long term memory, we have to be interested in the long term. We are therefore liberated from the obsession with individual lessons as units of learning. We must ask ‘what did they remember the next week, the next month, the next year?’ Now we are able to see education as a coherent long term programme for building mental schemas in the minds of pupils, not a series of isolated fragments which could be judged as ‘outstanding’ or ‘satisfactory’. Thus do the principles of cognitive architecture liberate us from the madness of graded lesson observations.

These are just a few of the ways in which understanding cognitive architecture liberates us professionally. But there is a wonderful personal liberation too. So often I have complained over the years about how poor my memory is. Recently, when I was explaining to a colleague how much explicit memorisation I require of pupils, he said, ‘My memory’s rubbish. I suppose you have trained yours to be able to do this?’ From his tone, it sounded like he thought such ‘training’ would require Herculean efforts, beyond the capacities of most ordinary mortals.

But when we understand that we all have extremely limited working memory, but practically limitless long term memory, and that repeated practice and testing can ensure that anything can be securely stored, then we know that we do not have a rubbish memory. We have a human memory, and we face the same limitations and have the same amazing potential as the rest of the human race. The obstacles we face to filling our memories with countless treasures of poetry, history and science are obstacles that we, and our pupils, can overcome with persistent, faithful, steady effort.

It is also a wonderful liberation to realise that we have not, in fact, forgotten most of what we learned in school. Every well educated adult has a vast store of tacit knowledge which enables her to read a wide range of texts, as well as listen to other articulate, educated adults and take part in intelligent conversation with them. It is amazing to consider just how much we do, in fact, remember, but this also places a solemn duty upon us. When we realise how much we know, we appreciate how important it is that we should pass this on, so that succeeding generations can also take part in this conversation. And we’ll never succeed in doing this unless we talk to our pupils!

So with the excitement and liberation of discovering the reality of how the human mind works, come solemn duties: to pass on knowledge, and to fight against the lies which prevent us, or our colleagues, from doing so, such as ‘education is what’s left when you’ve forgotten everything you learned at school’.

These lies are so often glibly repeated in staff rooms or displayed on classroom walls, and they strike at the very root of what education is, and even what human beings are. To fill the mind with knowledge, and to treasure this knowledge and pass it on to succeeding generations, is to perpetuate human civilisation. To refuse to do so is to abdicate from one of the most fundamental human responsibilities.