Opium of the classes

6th September 1996 at 01:00
Chris Woodhead challenges teachers to question their deepest beliefs. Simple fictions are the opium of the people," Frank Kermode once wrote. He was referring to our natural human tendency to enjoy literature which has a reassuring beginning, middle and end; which confirms us in our ideas and ideals and offers none of that invitation to new thinking and feeling which is the hallmark of great art.

To what extent do the ideas and beliefs which influence what happens in primary classrooms fall into the opium category? Do they comfort and reassure, or do they, as they ought and must, force us to re-evaluate our experience of what and how teachers should teach?

"At the heart of primary education lies the child," I am told time and time again. Is this a statement of the obvious, which does little more than remind the speaker that his or her heart is in the right place, or does it offer an important insight which we can use to improve the education we offer to children?

In one sense, it is most certainly the former, a classic example of a simple fiction. Teachers are, after all, paid to teach children. If what goes on in primary schools does not contribute to the development of those children, then something is badly wrong. Children are the reason for and the justification of everything teachers do. They are and must be at the heart of primary education.

But this, it might well be argued, is to trivialise what is in effect more a rallying cry than a mind-numbing tautology: a defence of primary education against a secondary school approach based on the concept of subjects. On the one hand, the child; on the other, the subject. Primary school teachers teach children; secondary teachers subjects. It is a neat dichotomy and a comforting one, too, if, as a primary teacher facing the daunting demands of nine national curriculum subjects, you look with envy at secondary specialists who have nothing to teach but the single subject for which they have been trained.

The trouble is that it does not hold water. The primary school child has to be taught something. To read, for example, or to add up. Some history, perhaps, or science, or geography, or art. To teach means to impart a body of knowledge, understanding and skill: children cannot simply "be" at the heart of what primary teachers do.

This does not imply any particular mode of curriculum organisation. It means thinking and thinking hard about how the curriculum is best organised. It means challenging the influential belief that an integrated or thematic approach is better than the teaching of separate subjects. But it does not lead automatically to separate subject teaching. The debate about aims needs to be kept distinct from second order considerations, important though they are, about the extent to which different elements within the curriculum are or are not usefully linked one to another.

Embedded within this distinction between primary and secondary education is the idea that "didactic teaching amounts to no more than the transmission of factual knowledge. What we really want is for children to make knowledge their own through a process of personal discovery". When primary teachers talk about "a secondary approach based on subjects" some have in mind "empty vessel" ideas of this kind. The notion of subject teaching becomes associated with boring chalk and talk didacticism.

It hardly needs to be said that while we can all remember the tedium of dictated notes, it does not have to be like this. I, for example, had the good fortune as a child to have a brilliant teacher who brought history to life through a fascinating mixture of teaching methods: research, group discussions, whole-class debate, improvisation and, yes, some outstanding didactic teaching which captivated our nine-year- old minds. Such teachers continue, of course, to practice their very particular blend of magic!

Didactic teaching is not a simple matter of transmitting factual knowledge. If it is, then it is likely to be bad didactic teaching, though it is worth adding that we delude ourselves if we think primary pupils are not interested in factual knowledge.

The fiction that to teach didactically is necessarily to do no more than transmit gobbets of fact continues nevertheless to be opposed to the belief that "real" learning takes place when the learner discovers new knowledge for himself or herself.

Many teachers, of course, argue that they employ and have always employed a mix of methods. Fine, if this is in fact the case, for I agree entirely that the ideal must be for the teacher to select that range of teaching methods and organisational strategies which is most likely to ensure that children master new knowledge and skills.

The trouble is that the inspection evidence shows that this ideal is not as widespread as some would have us believe. Weak lessons (and we are talking here of around 20 per cent of the lessons observed) certainly tend to be characterised by a reliance on individualised learning, by the excessive use of worksheets which make little or no intellectual demand upon the child, by time wasted, as I put it in a recent lecture, on "colouring, cutting and pasting".

I am certain that the climate is changing in the sense that there is now a much greater willingness to look at classroom practice in a dispassionate way. But it is disingenuous to suggest that this new openness has already resulted in a pragmatism that renders both critical comment and further discussion redundant.

The reverse in fact is true. Inspectors visit classrooms where the teacher's beliefs about the nature of primary education continue to militate against effective teaching and learning. Take this last phrase as a further example of what I mean. It is not a matter simply of the teacher teaching; the learner must learn. All learners, of course, need to internalise new knowledge and skills so that the former is understood and the latter become instinctive. Should this common sense recognition lead, however, to the argument that a (the?) major goal of early years education should be to ensure that children have the opportunity to exercise choice so that they become independent learners. Does it necessarily mean that how children learn (whatever this mysterious phrase might mean) is more important than what they learn or how teachers teach? Are we not, if we travel down this road, in danger of being led towards a conclusion that since all meaning is constructed by the learner, there can be no objective public knowledge? To enter this deeply relativistic cul-de-sac is in fact to abandon all hope of our schools giving their children a meaningful education .

Ideas such as these are of vital importance. They determine how teachers teach and what, therefore, children learn. At the heart of the school improvement industry (the rhetoric of which is shot through with a fair number of its own simple fictions) lies the basic truth that, in the end, it is what teachers do in their classrooms that matters. What they do depends upon the values and beliefs which inform their day to day actions. It is upon, therefore, these beliefs and values that we must concentrate if we are serious about wanting our children to achieve more.

The problem, of course, with this apparently innocent proposition is that such concentration is never easy. The ideas I have touched upon in this article are ideas which many teachers have lived and breathed for the whole of their teaching careers. They are ideas upon which many an academic or advisory career has been built. To question them, therefore, is inevitably to challenge, threaten even, to provoke resistance, intellectual and emotional.

I can see, however, no alternative. We have to move beyond the knee-jerk predictability that characterises so much of what passes for educational debate. The challenge must be to resist the temptation to ridicule and stereotype.

Some readers might feel that I have done just this in what I have written. I am certainly conscious that limitations of space have not allowed me to do justice to some of the ideas I have used to exemplify a way of thinking about primary education which needs, in my view, to be questioned. I would be delighted, therefore, if readers were to write to The TES in response to this article focusing on particularly important ideas such as the complex of beliefs which is encapsulated into the phrase how children learn.

It is a long time now since Lawrence Stenhouse wrote of the teacher as a "reflective practitioner". Do we as a profession have the courage to reflect when reflection means the critical examination of many ideas which have proved to be not so much simple as simplistic: simplistic fictions which stand in the way of better teaching and higher standards of pupil achievement?

* Chris Woodhead is the chief inspector of schools

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