Given the freedom to soar

24th January 1997 at 00:00
Annabelle Dixon found her progressive training demanding but it forced her to concentrate on the basics: her pupils.

My first class was biddable but wooden; they sat in rows and they didn't talk or fidget. Perhaps it should have concerned me that some of them were slumped against their chairs or looked fixedly out of the window, but I was in full control and fuller voice as I took them through the world's capital cities.

I wasn't concerned about the appropriateness of whole-class teaching to such an obviously disparate group of pupils. Nor did it trouble me that it might be of no little significance that they didn't know what a city was, let alone a capital one. Previous knowledge and conceptual understanding bothered me not the slightest. I was teaching the curriculum as it had been passed on to me.

I didn't really need any training to do what I was doing. Theories of child development bothered me not a whit. The "-ologies" didn't exist as far as I was concerned, which also went for styles of learning, memory and thinking. I was supremely confident in what I was doing. It was all very simplistic. It was all very understandable.

I was about eight at the time; the pupils were my various dolls, bears and an over-stuffed Scotty dog, and a roof slate stood in for a blackboard. I was playing at teachers.

More than 30 years later, I would still be playing if I hadn't had the inestimable good fortune to have been trained in the years leading up to Plowden. I was 19 in the late 1950s and attending a training college that promoted an approach to teaching and children's learning that was markedly different to my own experiences and certainly different to my expectations.

At first there was little that seemed out of the ordinary. For example, we had compulsory lectures on basic curriculum areas such as English, maths, science, music and PE. Those whose proficiency was found wanting in either of the first two had to have coaching. We all attended RE, psychology and history of education lectures and our timetable seemed extraordinarily tight. There were penalties if work was handed in late and demands for notes, essays and assignments were constant.

It took a little while for the difference to become apparent. I merely expected a training college to tell one first what to teach and then how to teach. It hadn't occurred to me that there could be two other words of prior importance: the who we were to teach and why we were engaged in this activity in the first place. On reflection it seemed entirely logical that these words should have had priority. If we were to take a scientific, professional approach to teaching, maximising our efficiency would entail having a thorough knowledge of our raw material: the children. It was, and still is, an approach paralleled in most other professional training.

It thus seemed pre-eminently sensible that we should study children's physical, cognitive, emotional and social development. Learning how children learn to think and how differently they think from adults was, and still remains for me today, intellectually mind-blowing.

Without such knowledge how could you be an effective teacher? For example, we all knew we had to teach children how to write, but it was of great practical importance to know about the development of hand-eye co-ordination, children's attention span and their understanding of symbolic communication systems. We could, of course, have been told simply to make sure our pupils knew their upper- from their lower-case letters by the age of five, and then left to find out the hard way that acquiring such a skill was fraught with problems none of which were, or indeed are, amenable to analysis unless one has an understanding of aspects of child development.

On the other hand, we could have blamed the children if things had gone wrong; children who didn't seem to want to profit by all the educational goodies that we were putting in front of them, such as learning to do their sums, could have been considered wilful, naughty or just irredeemably unintelligent. It was not such an uncommon attitude at the time.

No one pretended that human nature didn't exist or that children were never vexatious, trying or wayward, but we were not encouraged to see it as a primary cause. As professionals, we were taught to look at the possible deficiencies of our practice in the first instance. Some, more dewy-eyed than most, seemed to take it that children were never to be corrected, to the exasperation of lecturers who realised their teaching was being misinterpreted, so if such woolly-mindedness came along later, it was not the fault of these pioneers whose intellectual rigour I remember and respect to this day.

Research-based practice had its origins way back in the early Sixties. It gave us confidence and it gave us our roots. To be a Plowden-trained or influenced teacher is, and was, to recognise through such research that young children are natural academics and scientists. They love real learning for its own sake and we could see even then how a reliance on competition as the sole incentive debased the coinage of education.

The why we were teaching gave us our wings. Although important pragmatic considerations such as the three Rs were taken seriously, drilling in the minutiae was not; some people, even at that time, wished they had been, but to me it gave us the inestimable advantage and professional freedom of judging each method on its own merits. We studied the reflections and experiences of philosophers and educationalists from Plato to Froebel and Susan Isaacs, which gave us an historical and cultural perspective to what we were actually doing - educating children.

Thus my roots and wings as a Plowden teacher were firmly affixed. In my case, future study as a psychologist widened the spread of my roots; my experience of teaching young children for more than 30 years has given my wings their steady beat and has helped to keep me above the earthbound priorities of those who consider position in a league table to be the ultimate goal. My flight path has taken direction from the buoyant, unchanging, intellectually curious and endearing nature of children themselves, from whom we can still learn so much about what it is to be both educated and human.

* Annabelle Dixon is deputy headteacher at Holdbrook primary school in Waltham Cross, Herts

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