Mythic myopia;Leading Article;Opinion

28th May 1999 at 01:00
Nowhere outside the tales of Ancient Greece do you find more mythology than in our education system. Myths, of course, are popular because they simplify complex issues in an emotionally satisfying way. But they can also distort, by offering a false or outdated picture of reality. The mass media love ready-made myths - especially when it comes to education, which is inconveniently complicated for those who like ideas spelled out in black and white.

One of the most potent educational myths is the great war between the traditionalists and the progressives - which goes back to the days when the authors of the Black Papers criticised schools for emphasising discovery and creativity at the expense of structure and content. Certain phrases quickly became code for opposing factions. "Child-centred education" or "real books" act as red rags to the traditionalists; "whole-class teaching" or "learning by rote" raise the hackles of progressives. It all smacks of the worst kind of political correctness of the 1970s.

But those days are gone, and the traditionalprogressive divide is yesterday's agenda. Education, as Sir Keith Joseph rightly said when he was Secretary of State, is about knowledge, skills and understanding.

Today's key issue, as David Reynolds says in this week's Platform (page 13), is what happens in classrooms. If children are to achieve everything they are capable of, they need to be well-taught, using a variety of methods. Yet we still don't really know enough about what works - and stereotyped habits of thought hold up the process.

"Whole-class teaching," for example, should not be seen as lecturing to a roomful of silent children, when the most effective versions are noisy and interactive. Similarly, "child-centred" (often caricatured as too many unstructured days in the sandpit) should simply mean that successful teaching depends on engaging a child's interest and imagination. Why else use football stars to help teach maths?

Education needs clear thinking and focused objectives, but no one should forget that human development is often a messy business. Crude simplifications and trumped-up battle-lines simply confirm the prejudices of those who cannot be bothered to grasp the complex realities of how to teach our children well.

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