An Orwellian Education


Eric Arthur Blair (1903-1950)

In George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945), education plays a crucial role. It is because most of the animals do not succeed in learning to read and write that the pigs dominate the formulation of the principles of Animalism, the allegorical equivalent of Marxism-Leninism. But it is not only literacy which matters. Memory is a vital component of the plot too, as most of the animals fail to memorise the Seven Commandments, the founding principles of the Rebellion which are painted in large letters on the barn wall. Thus when Squealer, who represents Stalin’s Minister of Propaganda Molotov, alters the Commandments, the animals do not have a clear and certain reference point in their long term memories which allows them to be sure that something is amiss. Squealer also changes history, reversing the role of Snowball (Trotsky) from that of revolutionary hero to that of traitor. Squealer’s lies are so detailed and persuasive that they come to replace reality in the animals’ memories.

As the animals are the allegorical representation of the people of the Soviet Union, it’s worth considering what Orwell is suggesting about education for the masses. There are different types of animals on the farm, and their educational capacity varies from full literacy, in the case of the pigs who represent the Bolshevik elite, down to a complete inability to learn how to read and write, together with a very hazy, indistinct memory that is easy manipulated.

What does this suggest about the people of the Soviet Union under Stalin? Animal Farm suggests that there are different types of people who are capable of different levels of education, and there are those whose capacities for learning are so limited that they will always be at the mercy of their intellectual superiors. This was a widely held belief when Orwell wrote the novel in the forties, and it led to the creation of the two tier education system after the Second World War, based on the assumption that only a small minority could benefit from an academic curriculum.

Thankfully, this belief does not correspond with reality. The capacity to remember is not limited to a privileged few. It is a universal human capacity. Although fluid intelligence – the processing power of the brain – varies quite widely, crystallised intelligence – the store of schemas in long term memory – can make up for this variation. Everyone can remember. Everyone can become smarter and think better about anything, so long as they build up a store of knowledge in their long term memory.

This means that there are no sheep among the human race. There are no people condemned just to bleat whatever slogan the elite imposes upon them. All can remember, and this is the antidote to propaganda. But this antidote depends upon an education system that recognises this reality and endows ordinary people with the treasures of knowledge from past ages, so that they won’t be stranded in the present and easy prey to those who tell lies about history.

William C Bagley, who did valiant battle with his colleagues in the progressive-dominated Columbia Teachers College, put it well in 1922. He was concerned that the misuse of intelligence tests was leading to the categorisation of humanity into those who could and could not benefit from an academic curriculum:

To endow the masses with genius is biologically impossible; but to endow the masses with the fruits of genius is both educationally possible and socially most profitable. The mental tests will help most if they aid the teacher in discharging this transcendent duty. They will render a gratuitous and disastrous disservice if they encourage in the teacher the conviction that the illumination of common minds is either an impossible or a relatively unimportant task. (See Diane Ravitch, Left Back, p153)

The rhetoric of the twenties, with categories such as ‘feeble minded’, would not go down well these days. But in a softer form, these ideas persist. Too often, children are labelled as incapable when really they are just ignorant. The role of the school is to give them the knowledge that will make them capable, not to pander to their interests, and leave them just where they are: easy prey for manipulation.

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.

Understanding or Memorising?


Herbert A Simon (1916-2001)

One of the most damaging myths in education is that there is a conflict between memorisation and understanding, when in fact, they go together, and are both essential. This is one of the ideas demolished by Daisy Christodoulou in Seven Myths, under the heading of ‘facts prevent understanding’. The classic piece of research by Nobel laureate Herbert Simon on chess players shows how memorising and understanding are not in conflict; rather, they are intertwined and interdependent. Chess grand masters can look briefly at a chess board and then remember the positions of the pieces far better than those not skilled in chess. But they could only do this when the pieces were arranged as they would be in a game scenario. When they were randomly arranged, the chess players performed no better than the average.

The chess grand master’s supreme skill is based largely on memorising tens of thousands of game scenarios. Most of the time, most of what a grand master is doing in a chess game is remembering. This is not in conflict with understanding. Obviously the grand master understands the rules of chess, but then so does someone who is only a beginner. What distinguishes the grand master from the beginner is the difference between their long term memories. One is well-stocked with chess moves and scenarios, while the other isn’t. If the beginner wants to advance, she needs to put in the effort and get memorising. She needs to be drilled, or drill herself. She needs to study hard.

This applies to every academic subject. Understanding and memorisation are both essential, but the majority of the effort must go into memorising, because a pupil can grasp a concept readily in a lesson, but quickly forget it, because she has not been drilled in class, nor has she been required to self-quiz for homework to consolidate the knowledge, nor has she been tested at intervals to make sure it does not fade. Drilling, self-quizzing, testing at intervals: these are the foundations of teaching which enable everyone to make progress, because memorisation is absolutely essential, and it strengthens and consolidates understanding. Without the knowledge in your mind, how can you think about it? It is the lack of these foundations which leads to the lament which I have heard so often in so many staff rooms: “I taught them that material. Why can’t they remember it? Why did so many fail the end of term exam?”

It is because of the false distinction between understanding and memorisation that teachers do not focus anywhere near enough time on making sure the foundations are in place. The bulk of class and homework time needs to be dedicated to making sure that core knowledge is thoroughly mastered. If this is not done, then only the most able and motivated will make much progress. The most able and motivated may well then go on to become education professors, and because they were not required to memorise, they’ll think that everyone else can just blithely sail along without the hard work of deliberately committing key facts and procedures to memory.

This is known as expert blindness, and the more gifted a person is, the more likely they are to suffer from it. But all teachers suffer from it to some extent, and to overcome it, we need good programmes of instruction which emphasise drill and repeated practice. We can’t depend upon our gut feeling, or even our ‘professional judgement’, to know when something has been practised enough.

Further reading:

Rote Learning is Ace

Memory and Liberal Education

(Image from Wikimedia).


The Problems with Primary School Testing

Boy Reading

‘Boy Reading – Ned Anshutz’ by Thomas Pollock Anshutz (1851-1912)

From having been a strong advocate of the general reading tests which have been a part of the ‘No Child Left Behind’ federal policy, Hirsch has now become an opponent. In his latest book, Why Knowledge Matters, he explains why he has changed his view. Although the general reading tests are valid tests of reading ability, they are what he calls ‘consequentially invalid’. However accurately they may test reading, they have harmful educational consequences.

General reading tests are educationally harmful, argues Hirsch, because they promote the idea that there is such a thing as a general reading skill, when in fact, reading ability is based primarily on knowledge of the domain about which one is reading. Because general reading tests support the fallacious but widespread belief in general skills, their use as a national measure of achievement on which schools and teachers are judged leads to ever more lessons in these general skills. Pupils do ever more practice of comprehension strategies, and ever less time is spent learning specific subject knowledge.

It’s easy to sympathise with teachers and schools that adopt the strategy of training in comprehension skills, rather than take the risk of giving a good general education. Good general knowledge is the best way to improve reading comprehension, but the fact is that teachers and pupils are presented with high stakes tests for which there can be no specific preparation, and this fills them with anxiety. Naturally enough, they want to do something specific that will help their pupils perform better in the tests. And the only specific thing they can do is practise comprehension strategies. All other preparation is indirect, and we cannot blame teachers and schools who are placed under such pressure from being doubtful about indirect, incremental, long-term methods when they are facing an imminent high stakes test.

So the main practical, observable effect across the American education system of holding schools to account through general reading tests has been a further impoverishment of the curriculum, as pupils waste ever more time working on mythical general skills. Hirsch recognises that, politically, there is no possibility in the USA of their being national tests which focus on specific knowledge, so he suggests that school districts remedy the deleterious effects of national testing by introducing their own local system of tests which are focused on subject specific domains rather than general reading ability.

The British government should take heed of the damaging effects of making a general reading test the measure of school attainment. These damaging effects are a matter of historical record in the USA. If the Department for Education wishes to promote a richer programme of subject specific education in primary schools, they need to change the way primary schools are held accountable. They need to scrap general reading tests at key stage two and replace them with specific tests of pupils’ knowledge about literature, history, geography, science, art and music. And while they’re reforming key stage two tests, they should scrap the English Language GCSE, which is also an unfair and educationally unhelpful assessment.

Of course, there will continue to be courageous and intelligent school leaders and teachers who build a rich curriculum of subject specific knowledge, and eschew the false promise of training in mythical general skills. But at the moment, our assessment system, especially at primary level, is hindering rather than helping this movement for educational reform.

Further reading:

General Reading Tests Are Always Unfair

Making Excellence Ordinary in Norfolk

mundesleyThe history of education in Norfolk has had a very personal impact upon me. My mother grew up in Lincolnshire and Norfolk. I have many fond memories of childhood holidays building sandcastles at Mundesley, visiting windmills and rowing around the Broads.

My mother left because she was the only one of her family to go to university. Her father, my Grandad Tony, had left home at fourteen to join the merchant navy, and once he left the sea, he wandered between many jobs on land, including working as a cowherd. There was nothing wrong with his brains, though. When he was convalescing in hospital while my mother was at university, she gave him a copy of War and Peace, and he loved it. He was also a great fan of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, and he could certainly give convincing political lectures.

But there were virtually no books in the house when my mother was growing up. She discovered books at school, and she went to university because of the school she attended for sixth form, in Norwich. It had been a girls’ grammar, and had only just started the process of turning into a comprehensive. At the top end, it was still a grammar school, and she had three excellent English teachers who inspired her and encouraged her to apply to Cambridge. It was there that she met my father, who was from a completely different background: the Radices had always been public school, Oxbridge types. If it hadn’t been for those teachers in that school in Norwich, I would not exist. It was because of them that the daughter of a cowherd and the son of a senior Treasury official met and married.

As with so many people, the arguments about academic selection cause me to reflect on how educational policy has affected me personally, and those whom I love. It seems likely that had she lived in later years, when comprehensivisation was complete in Norfolk, my mother would not have gone to Cambridge. But she was the exception in her family. She was lucky. The goal must be to offer such opportunities to everyone.

My mother’s example will stay strongly in my mind as I move to Norfolk next year, and work to provide access to knowledge for every young person who attends the schools in the Inspiration Trust. It should not be an exceptional event for a working class girl to have her mind opened to the wonders of great literature. It should be ordinary. And how are we going to make it ordinary?

We cannot reform education based on what is exceptional. We cannot depend upon a few exceptionally talented, gifted people to effect change on a large scale. We need to build something that will make ordinary classrooms places where ordinary pupils can learn about the great ideas which are the heritage of all humanity. We need to build a coherent curriculum, delivered through methods that immerse the whole class in specific domains of knowledge.

This really is achievable for any school. One of the things that is so attractive about E D Hirsch is his optimism, which is based not on vague ideas but upon the practical experience of helping to create core knowledge schools. He comments in his latest book, Why Knowledge Matters, that ‘I have witnessed over and over that in a coherent school most teachers can become highly effective’ (p35).

But Hirsch is also clear that a coherent curriculum cannot be implemented without better ideas. Unless those who design and deliver the curriculum are convinced that access to rich, structured subject knowledge is the key to success, and that such knowledge can be transmitted to all pupils, regardless of social background, then they will continue to be bogged down in the failed ideas that have been holding us back for so many decades. They will be hampered by the notion that only a select few are capable of grasping academic knowledge, or that it is tyrannical to impose upon ordinary people the knowledge which the elite has always possessed.

As a teenager in Norwich in the early seventies, my mother didn’t feel oppressed by the traditional teachers who presumed to introduce her to the great writers of the literary canon. On the contrary, she was inspired at the time, and has been grateful ever since. I want to make her proud by giving similar opportunities to the young people growing up in Norfolk today.

(Photo of Mundesley by Philip Halling).

Educational Justice Depends upon a Clear Curriculum

layers_in_the_rock_-_capital_reef_npI’ve tended to think about the importance of teaching specific knowledge in terms of effectiveness. Specifying a coherent body of knowledge, teaching it explicitly, testing it frequently, all help to build mental schema in long term memory, which are vital for advanced thought and communication. But until reading Hirsch’s latest, Why Knowledge Matters, I hadn’t thought enough about another vital aspect of building a clear, coherent, specific curriculum: the question of justice.

Once we have clarified the curriculum, we have opened it up to everyone who wishes to master it. We have made it available to all pupils, and to all teachers. Instead of a guessing game which will always favour the most advantaged, we have created a fair contest where the rules are known by all.

Imagine that footballing ability were made the major marker of employability and social prestige, but the rules of football were not clearly established. Instead, pupils were told that success in football was a matter of ‘creativity’ and developing generalised ‘ball skills’. With no clarity about what needed to be mastered, those who happened to come from homes where their parents had been kicking balls around with them since they could walk would excel, while those who did not have this advantage would have no idea how to improve, and would probably conclude that they were just doomed to failure.

Thinking skills are domain specific; we need to know a lot about about a subject to think well about it. When mythical generalised skills like ‘creativity’ or ‘critical thinking’ are made the goal of education, we do not, therefore, cease to test knowledge. We just cease to make clear to pupils and teachers exactly what knowledge we intend to test. When we do this, we give an unfair advantage to those who have picked up a large amount of general knowledge due to a more advantaged background. We turn public examinations into a sorting system that reinforces current social strata. We give the majority of the population the idea that they are just not destined to be good at anything academic.

But as soon as we make the knowledge required crystal clear, we give everyone a fair shot. The ability to master knowledge, to store vast amounts of it in long term memory, is an ordinary human ability. It is not limited to those whose parents went to university and hold professional jobs.

The more clarity there is in the curriculum, the more accessible we make it to the whole of society. Specifying the knowledge that enables full access to the public sphere is an urgent matter of social justice.

(Image from Wikimedia).