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‘Learning should not be like a Google chill-out area where thinkers brainstorm on the next great app’

Dr Tony Sewell, CEO of Generating Genius, was chair of the London mayor’s Education Inquiry last year. He writes:

“We have come to a stage when to say ‘Teacher knows best’ is almost akin to screaming a profanity at a pupil.

Recently, Boris Johnson announced £7m funding for programmes to improve teachers’ subject knowledge. This cash is part of the £20m fund established as a result of last year’s the mayor’s inquiry into London schools, which I chaired.

Our team found teachers trapped in a pedagogy that constantly deferred to the experience and knowledge of their students in order to make lessons interesting. They would even claim that Ofsted expected them to spend more time in student-led activities than by ‘talking’ to children from the front of the classrooom.

The idea of collaborative learning between teacher and pupil is one of the reasons too many schools are still coasting. Students do not possess the maturity to enter into this pact and it also de-skills the teacher. The classroom should not be Google chill-out area where great minds brainstorm on how to create the next great app. Children need to be taught the basic chords before they can perform a great jazz improvisation.

This pedagogy of deference to the pupil is because we live in a culture of immense digital knowledge flow that suggests children ‘know’ more than those who were educated in the pre-internet age. But there is no evidence for this supposition: the space they occupy within the new technology is largely around entertainment. At the moment the teacher in the classroom is still our best bet in giving our children a decent chance of gaining higher order knowledge

Great teachers do not collaborate with their pupils; they share their knowledge. The idea that students should be spending hours on the internet doing ‘research’ is not good teaching, either.

In English, for example, too many of our students are unable to construct a story. This is because they have not been told to read great stories and understand the standard construct of a comedy/ romance, a tragedy or the mythic re-workings of modern stories. This knowledge does not come from some imaginative gene that is switched on when the student is asked to write a story. Most stories written by children have little literary value; let’s not pretend they are great works. They are akin to adolescent mumblings that will hopefully mature into proper English. There is, literally, a science to good English teaching whereby a knowledge base has to be reached in order to progress. It is one where the student literally ‘knows’ their place and that it is at the feet of the teacher, the great ‘master builder’.

Teachers need to be scholars in their own subject – they need to be on top of the latest research – they need to give our children the classical framework for them to be become true independent learners. 

Knowledge is not about a boring teacher throwing bland facts at children for hours while they fall asleep. This can happen but this is simply bad teaching. Great teaching needs to find its sacred roots. It was always about knowledge, but that knowledge had to first be consecrated. It had to be made special – this was the old magic spell, the words that would open up the Pandora’s Box.

So that’s where you start in primary school – with maths and magical rhymes and surrounding children with words and word play. This was always about repetition and memory. The idea of teaching as drilling facts, poems and bits of data into children’s minds is what primary teaching should be about and our children love this.

Knowledge is best served within a ritualised school context. Going to school needs to resemble going to church. Indeed, our Oxbridge establishment sits comfortably with these religious overtures. Even in the secular setting of our state schools children learn best in a context where there is uniform, adherence to hierarchy in which adults are in control, where there is a sense of school legacy and alumni, school motto, school hymn, great school societies and networks.

Children need to be tested in the caldron of the exam to se if they can succeed in a particular kind of pressure. A recent youtube video called: ‘I will not let an exam result decide my fate’ by the young activists Spoken Word, has had an incredible 2 million views. It shows what good teachers are up against and how irresponsible young people are once we gave them the mike for too long.

The most worrying line is when he slams the state for judging students by exams. He then says: 'Yet every school has the audacity to have a policy on equality.' The implication is that schools that teach in an old-school way are not treating children equally.

If you fail your exam, then you need to ask why? Did you revise hard enough? What was your attendance at lessons like? We should be getting our children to love taking tests because they can see how well they are doing against their peers. 

The other positive force about teachers pumping knowledge into their pupils is that this leads to greater confidence in their pupils.

I hate the monosyllabic grunting of the inner-city youth, where knowledge has come off the latest you-tube rap video. I want this world kept outside the sacred corridors of school.

But surely school should be in a space that welcomes popular culture and we should encourage our students to study it? Why, then, are they not doing this in the top independent schools? They understand that to assume a position of leadership a classical education is needed.

Ironically, I am a great believer in media studies, but the best tool with which to interrogate popular culture is a classical education. You can get so much more out of watching Homeland if you’ve studied Homer’s Odysseus.”

Dr Tony Sewell will be discussing How education can beat disadvantage at the London Festival of Education on 23rd November.

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