Precious insights that time forgot

4th November 2005 at 00:00
Over the past 20 years, teaching has fallen prey to professional amnesia, writes Mary Jane Drummond.

The trouble started in 1987. Without invoking a golden age, or glorifying the mythical Plowden era, my argument is that before the 1988 Education Reform Act, by and large teachers did their own thinking.

But soon after the arrival of the Department for Education and Science's national curriculum consultation document, the first signs of professional amnesia appeared in our midst. Slowly but surely the teaching community began to act as if worthwhile knowledge were only to be found in ring-binders, swiftly supplemented by training packs with videos.

The past 18 years exemplify the blank-slate model of teacher development.

"They know nothing" seems to be the premise of successive education departments, "so we will have to tell them." Whereas I believe we did know something, indeed some very important things, and we did not and do not need so much telling. The time is ripe for some critical remembering.

Let's start with the incomparable Edmond Holmes, the former chief inspector of schools, who retired in 1910 and promptly sat down to write his most important book, What Is and What Might Be, in which he challenged the entire contemporary education system. In a later text, he drew an arresting distinction between two kinds of learning: first, learning by swallowing, and second, its polar opposite, learning by doing.

If we were to resurrect these splendid categories, and put them at the forefront of our thinking today, we would be able to slice away many stultifying elements in the official version of the early-years and primary curriculum.

We would be able to judge for ourselves whether our well-intentioned practices are shaping passive learners or whether they are acts of liberation, allowing children to live and learn in the safety of freedom.

Fast forward to 1924, when another great educational thinker and pioneer, Susan Isaacs, started teaching at the Malting House school in Cambridge.

Her four years' work there were extensively documented in detailed daily records of everything the children said and did. Many of her findings are long overdue for revival.

A good place to start would be The Children We Teach (1932) in which she identifies the three kinds of spontaneous activity that characterise the lives of young children:

* the love of movement and of perfecting bodily skills

* the delight in make-believe and the expression of the world within

* the interest in actual things and events, and the discovery of the world without.

It is worth emphasising the word "spontaneous" here. Ms Isaacs is not listing three kinds of activities that teachers should plan for, nor three sets of early learning goals - she is synthesising her evidence of what real children actually do in the world, the activities that well up from their physical and intellectual energy, and from their deep desire to understand. This is, she says, "a veritable passion".

The next expert witness for my argument against forgetting is Ruth Griffiths, whose magnum opus is A Study of Imagination in Early Childhood (1930).

Perhaps the most important passage to disinter from this forgotten masterpiece is an unsettling observation about the dangers of opening too many nursery schools, and over-institutionalising the lives of young children:

"The primary schools may come to regard these as institutions from which they may expect a continuous stream of children broken in to school life as they conceive it."

What Ruth Griffiths reminds us of here is that the quality of our nursery schools and other early-years provision is directly dependent upon our understanding of what these settings are for. Are they for breaking children in to the structures of statutory schooling? Are they for marching children hotfoot across the acres of "stepping stones", the curious metaphor now used to describe children's early learning? Are they for raising standards in literacy and numeracy? Not according to the splendid passage in the 1933 Hadow report on infant and nursery schools:

"In none of this should a uniform standard to be reached by all children be expected. The infant school has no business with uniform standards of attainment."

Griffiths argues that the lives of young children are more intellectually rich and vigorous than institutions can well provide for, and that children's "most urgent need is freedom to grow and think". In this argument, she closely follows the educationist John Dewey, who sees education as practically synonymous with life and growth. According to him:

"Education has as its aim at every stage an added capacity for growth."

He also eloquently reminds us of the educator's part in this: "The teacher must know both the capacities, the fulfilments in truth and beauty and behaviour open to children, and the conditions that ensure that (the children's) actions move in this direction, towards the culminations of themselves."

How's that for an early-years philosophy? And not a target or learning goal in sight.

I rest my case.

A longer version of this article appears in a special double issue of the journal Forum, out this month. "Reclaiming the Radical Agenda" (volume 47, 2005)., 01235 817956

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