Don’t blame “factory education”

[P]hrases like “the industrial model of education,” “the factory model of education,” and “the Prussian model of education” are used as a “rhetorical foil” in order make a particular political point – not so much to explain the history of education, as to try to shape its future.

Much enjoyed this revisionist piece on the so-called factory model of state schooling – written about the US but with much to say to the UK too:

http://hackeducation.com/2015/04/25/factory-model

History of Prep Education Podcast # 3 – Interview with Mark Johnson

In Episode 3 of my History of Prep Education project, I interview Mark Johnson.

Mark (known to all his pupils as MRJ) attended prep boarding school himself aged 6 (!). As a teacher, he taught at Summer Fields for 17 years, becoming Deputy Headmaster, before becoming Headmaster of Cheam in 1998 – a post he held for 18 years, growing the school from 120 boys to 420 boys & girls and winning much acclaim in the process.

In this interview, we talk about:

  • Mark’s own (Dickensian!) prep school days
  • The story of Mark’s entrance into teaching
  • What makes an outstanding prep school teacher, and head
  • The magic and eccentricity of prep schools, and how these can be preserved in the 21st Century.

We also touch on a near-death experience Mark had, and the difficulty of growing up with his father serving in the Army on the other side of the world.

Listen on Soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/willorrewing/will-orr-ewing-interviews-mark-johnson 

Or YouTube below

Children and the Use of Technology

(I published this piece on the Keystone blog a few months ago, and reprint it below.)

One topic often discussed in my conversations with parents is the impact of technology on family life.

Context – how common is technology in children’s lives?

The pervasiveness of technology in children’s lives is undisputed. The Connected Kids Report last year showed that children aged 5 – 16 spend an average of six and a half hours a day in front of a screen, compared with around three hours in 1995. (UK adults spend even more time). Smartphone and tablet ownership amongst children is at an all-time high; did you know that more than one in 10 children aged 3 – 4 now have their own tablet (11%, up from 3% in 2013)?

Few areas of modern life are technology-free and teenagers in particular perceive themselves to be at a social disadvantage if they do not have a smartphone. Combine this peer pressure with an educational environment ever more in thrall to the use of technology in the classroom (the growth of BETT even during the years I have been running Keystone has been staggering) and the occasional concerned voice raised in opposition to this omnipresent technology is, if heard, rarely listened to.

What is wrong with technology?

Technological improvements have liberated and enriched whole areas of human activity in ways that the most visionary alchemist of yore could never have predicted. Few of its critics fail to recognise these contributions. Nonetheless, there are three particular concerns that parents have as they see the relationship their children have with technology.

  1. Social media – a shallow form of communication. Perhaps the most popular form of technology in children’s lives is social media, particularly Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. One of the most eloquent critics of the impact of social media on children’s social development is Sherry Turkle, whose books Reclaiming Conversation and Alone Together are well worth reading for parents who want to explore the issue further. She points to the fact that children have started to prefer digital communication over in-person / face-to-face communication, in part because it is easier to control. Children, especially in their teenage years when many are so nervous about how they are perceived, prefer to present more perfected selves via digital means rather than face the messiness, stumbles and mistakes of real-world, real-time communication. Of course, though, it is exactly this older form of face-to-face communication that is so important to the development of the self, and the development of such attributes as empathy. A 2011 University of Michigan scan of studies of American college students found a 40-per-cent decrease in empathy in the past four decades, with the steepest declines appearing in the past 10 years. These figures lead Professor McGilchrist to comment last year that smartphones were making children “borderline autistic” – though this was critiqued well in BigThink. But Turkle is surely persuasive when she says: “The predictability and ‘friction-free’ nature of virtual worlds is compelling to children, but it doesn’t teach them about relationships — conversations do.”
  2. Modern technology is distracting. A completely obvious point, you will say – butthis article by technology scholar Clay Shirky made me see just what a problem distraction has become, even for extremely able NYU undergraduates. In it Shirky reminds us how bad humans are at multi-tasking; draws our attention to the sinister pact made between smartphone Operating Systems and app companies to ensnare children’s attention neurochemically; and – perhaps most interestingly – shows that even students who do not bring smartphones to lessons can be distracted by the “secondary smoke” of a neighbour’s phone.  In my own experience of watching teenagers, I so often see evidence of that cruel tug placed on children by an unread message or status update, to the extent that some seem almost powerless to resist.
  3. Modern technology mediates and diminishes experience and perception. In a related concern, such technology has begun to invade experience to such an extent that children’s perception of their childhoods is in danger of being dulled, alienated and diminished. This is, of course, equally a problem for adults, and Turkle’s work is full of sad – but all-too-recognisable – stories of, for instance, the parent who reads his emails while giving his son a bath or who finishes a text as she greets her child at the school gates. Our relationships have started to slip into what researchers call an “absent presence.” We live in what Nicholas Carr calls The Shallows. In one telling statistic, although 82 per cent of adults acknowledge that using your phone during an in-person conversation hurts that interaction, 89 per cent keep doing it anyway. In my own experience, I fear that even technology use that is focused on the child (e.g. using your smartphone to record your child’s sports match or play) acts as a barrier between parent and experience – thereby draining it of some of its meaning.

What can parents do?

If the above three concerns strike you as plausible (and I’d love to hear from you whether they do or don’t), here are a few suggestions from the literature on what could be done in response – some easier to implement than others…

  1. Be strong. One of the most interesting comments I read in Turkle’s work is that children both longed for more conversations with their parents and peers (saying they turned to their own devices because others were similarly plugged in) and appreciated the liberation from them when firm rules were put in place. Even Steve Jobs, amongst other technology entrepreneurs, was firm in the limits he placed on his children’s technology use. As in many areas of bringing up children, parents should help children delay gratification and resist temptation in the secure knowledge that “they know better.”
  2. Model a healthy relationship with technology. As Turkle has pointed out, if a child sees their parent obsessed with a “shiny object” from the moment they’re born, they will want one for themselves as soon as they have the words to ask for it. “In parental slang, it has become known as the ‘passback,’ passing back the iPhone to quiet your toddler in the rear seat of the car.” Turkle recommends cultivating “sacred spaces” in family life, such as the kitchen, the dinner table and – a surprise for me – the car, in which no technology is allowed and conversation (even messy grunts and half-articulations) is fostered. If you need a hand, a friend from New Zealand points out that there are now apps to stop you overusing apps! The novelist Zadie Smith used a site called Freedom to help her avoid distraction and finish her novel.
  3. Encourage the experience of solitude and hands-on activity. Turkle convincingly points to studies showing that it is “only when we are alone with our thoughts — not reacting to external stimuli — that we engage that part of the brain’s basic infrastructure devoted to building up a sense of our stable autobiographical past.” Some schools have built in wilderness / craft experience, such as Australia’s Timbertop programme or the UK’s Forest Schools, into adolescent education. However, most parents will find that simply encouraging their children to get out into the natural world or pursue quiet individual activities like modeling clay and sketching will help to achieve the same goals: slow children down and counteract the distractibility of technology. Turkle again: “When you watch children play with them, you see how the physicality of the materials offer a resistance that gives children time to think, to use their imaginations, to make up their own worlds. ”
  4. Interrogate the school’s policy on technology use. If you have found any of the above convincing, send some of the articles and books mentioned to your school. What is their policy on smartphone and tablet use? If they agree with the three problems mentioned above, how do they help their pupils overcome them?

Kidzania and the growth of a child’s imagination

My office happens to be near Kidzania, the “Educational Entertainment Experience” that has recently opened in Westfield, so it has been the subject of some speculation amongst the Keystone team. I have spent the past few days reading more about it, and confess to some unease about its educational vision.

Kidzania is built over a whopping 75,000 square feet and is conceived as a “child-size city where kids are in charge.” Rather than the sorts of games and rides found in most theme parks, this child’s city offers a range of 60 jobs and activities that mimic the adult world: there’s a newspaper office, a hospital, a bank, a supermarket and even a nightclub. Children are paid for their jobs in kidZos, the local currency, and can spend their hard-earned salary on the activities. They are paid Z8 for being a policeman, Z9 for being a model in the fashion studio, Z12 for being a surgeon in the hospital etc (full list here). The facsimile of adult life is not confined to the city’s market economy. As you can see from some of the family videos that have been shot there, the city has all the meretricious features of modern mall life that will be familiar to anyone who has been to Hong Kong, Singapore, Dubai etc. – from the low-lit boulevards lined by fake trees and sculptures to the ceaseless soundtrack of half-familiar Club Classics.

The educational philosophy underpinning Kidzania is self-explanatory. It is role-play, “a universal form of play enjoyed by children all over the world. Role-play is fun and has very positive educational, psychological and motivational benefits.” Kidzania’s form of role-play “is an exceptional education and entertainment city which stimulates creative thinking and boosts levels of self-esteem and confidence.” Educators and “play experts” have ensured that children learn “creativity, critical thinking, communication, confidence, and collaboration.” Of course, schools are being offered large discounts to entice them to Kidzania for next year’s school trips.

Children have always loved to pretend to be adults, and role-play is surely one of the most time-honoured of children’s amusements.

So what are my misgivings about Kidzania?

They are two:

  • Its environment leaves little room for the imagination. As anyone who has ever held a stick aloft and declared en garde to a friend or sibling knows, children do not actually need realistic toys or environments to lend verisimilitude to their play. In fact, I wonder whether there might almost be some sort of law of diminishing returns – whereby the more realism that is supplied by a toy or environment, the less a child actually derives in imaginative output. When a child is transplanting very life-like organs, like she might in Kidzania, or flying in a real cockpit, what exactly is the imaginative or creative merit? Where is the potential for imaginative growth? This equation can’t be exact of course; a completely desolate environment would not provide much imaginative fodder either. But I have a hunch that the various “Adventure Play” initiatives like The Land are striking a more humane balance. By supplying just enough material (hideouts, small hills, swings, discarded toys etc.) to get children started, such initiatives exhibit so much more faith in the generative power of children’s imaginations. My own tastes would run to something more like Maggie and Rose’s Village Nursery, whose imaginative landscape (a traditional English village green) is thoughtful, harmonious, natural but – crucially – limited. It is not a detailed, realistic picture of an English village, but rather one that leaves plenty of room for the development of a fertile imagination. Rudolf Steiner no doubt goes too far in the quotation below, but I think his insight is so much richer than that offered by Kidzania:

You can make a doll for a child by folding up an old napkin, making two corners into legs, the other two corners into arms, a knot for the head, and painting eyes, nose, and mouth with blots of ink. Or you can buy the child what is called a “pretty” doll, with real hair and painted cheeks. We need not dwell on the fact that the “pretty” doll is of course hideous and apt to spoil the healthy aesthetic sense for a lifetime; for education, the main question is different. If the children have the folded napkin before them, they have to fill in from their own imagination what is necessary to make it real and human. This work of the imagination shapes and builds the forms of the brain. The brain unfolds as the muscles of the hand unfold when they do the work they are suited for. By giving the child the so-called “pretty” doll, the brain has nothing more to do. Instead of unfolding, it becomes stunted and dried up.

  • The content of its role-play is banal. Given that Kidzania has chosen to fill its child’s city with content (and not let children invent much for themselves), I wonder whether they could have chosen jobs and activities with a bit more of the marrow of life in them? There is something curiously anodyne about offering children the chance to be a banker, dentist or air conditioning technician; something more shallow than their grandiose educational promises would suggest about offering children the chance to be a model, beautician or flight attendant – especially in the synthetic way they are presented at Kidzania, with limited opportunities for children to manipulate the experience. It used to be that children would imagine themselves as a knight, a pirate, a Robin Hood. Can’t the burdens of finding a career with a good wage be postponed, at least until after the age of 14? The ages 4 – 14 are a never-to-be-repeated opportunity for children to fill their heads with stories, images and genuinely fertile experiences. Couldn’t a Kidzania be devised, such as this one in the US, that fed such activities rather than taking time away from them?

The question of how far the adult world should be allowed to impinge on childhood receives frequent attention. As I have argued elsewhere, now that primary children are being introduced to financial literacy and a whole host of other adult concerns, it seems that precious little time is being left for genuinely exploratory and imaginative pursuits that were once the joys of growing up.

 

Some (no doubt rosy-eyed) pictures showing the inventiveness of Victorian children’s typical games..

 

Daisy Christodoulou on Educational Myths

I was delighted to see that the magnificent Daisy Christodoulou, who featured quite a lot in my recent mini-essay on the curriculum, contributed an article to last week’s Spectator.

Her point that some of the trendiest education ideas are actually rather old hat was very well put:

“…one popular buzzword at the moment is ‘21st-century skills’, which sounds about as cutting-edge and modern as it gets…But a similar case was made at the start of the 20th century. In 1911, a prominent US educationalist criticised the way that schools taught pupils ‘a mass of knowledge that can have little application for the lives which most of them must inevitably lead’. Today we also hear a lot about the importance of ‘innovative’ project- and activity-based learning. But in England in the 1930s, the Hadow Report into primary education counselled that the curriculum should be thought of ‘in terms of activity and experience rather than knowledge to be acquired and facts to be stored’. We’ve been trying these ideas, and failing with them, for a very long time.

I had never considered this:

…the reading researcher Keith Stanovich has argued that ‘education has suffered because its dominant model for adjudicating disputes is political rather than scientific’.

I also feel, and am heartened by, this:

“…my impression is that we are at a turning point in education. More and more teachers are realising the gap between the theory they are taught and their practical experience. More and more books are being published which explain the insights of cognitive science and the implications they have for classroom teachers. Instead of the warmed-through fads of the past century, I think the next few years will see evidence-based reforms that lead to genuine educational improvements.”

The whole article can be read here.

Mini-Essay: The Curriculum

In almost a decade of answering questions from parents about boarding schools, I have never been asked about a school’s curriculum. And yet it is hard to think of a feature that has more of a bearing on a child’s education. This short essay makes a case for why the curriculum is quite so important, and suggests a few ways to judge individual schools on the merits or demerits of their curriculum.

I should say a word on the term. A school’s ‘curriculum’ is the course of study it has chosen for its pupils. In detail, it would describe the content of every lesson. Although schools are directed to some extent by national examinations, they nevertheless – and especially in the independent sector – have a lot of freedom to design their own curricula.

Very Brief History

To understand the importance of the curriculum, it is necessary to have a whistle-stop look at its history.

Before the nineteenth century, boarding schools offered a curriculum that appears baffling to the modern parent. Most schools exclusively taught the Classics; Harrow also offered…Archery.

From the nineteenth century onwards, though, after spirited debate as to the merits of new-fangled subjects like Science and English Literature, the curriculum began to take the shape that it was to retain to the present day. This is a curriculum arranged into discrete subjects, such as Maths, English and Science, and organised around the core knowledge included in these subjects. To my knowledge, no more effective curriculum has ever been devised or instituted.

Such a curriculum is what late nineteenth century commentators such as Matthew Arnold called a “liberal education.” (For more on the term, read my mini-essay on the topic.) Importantly, it was thought to be a curriculum that should not be limited to independent schools, but which had universal appeal and benefit. From the 1870s onwards, it met with the approval of headmasters, politicians and commentators of many different stripes. And it was just such a liberal curriculum that inspired the formation of the first National Curriculum in 1988.

However, though the support for such a curriculum was broad, it was by no means unanimous. Weakened by the ideological currents of the 1960s and 70s, the consensus faltered and, as David Conway charts in his brilliant summary of the events, the mainstream educational establishment began to view this curriculum as elitist, irrelevant and not fit for purpose. Since 1988, the National Curriculum has been steadily distancing itself from the curriculum beliefs that had been upheld for so long by both the independent sector and beyond.

From the late 20th Century onwards, then, there was has been a decoupling. The National Curriculum has become ever more suspicious of traditional subject knowledge, and has promoted instead a curriculum that is based on skills (such as “collaboration” or “project research”) and rooted in the knowledge brought to class by pupils rather than knowledge imparted to pupils by teachers. The independent sector, on the other hand, has by and large stuck to the curriculum principles laid down in the nineteenth century.

How does this affect boarding school parents?

Concerns for Parents

Parents should be anxious as to whether the independent sector is safely insulated from the modern educational orthodoxy on the curriculum.

This is not the place to go into detail about why a traditional knowledge-based curriculum is so important for children. For parents who want to read more, the book to read is Daisy Christodoulou’s Seven Myths About Education. For now, one quotation of hers out of many that favour the traditional boarding school curriculum will suffice:

Data from the last thirty years lead to a conclusion that is not scientifically challengeable: thinking well requires knowing facts, and that’s true not just because you need something to think about. The very processes that teachers care about most – critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving – are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge.

So do boarding school parents have any reason to be anxious? In general, I am glad to say, no. Most independent school leaders have rejected modern curriculum orthodoxy, no doubt seeing that their belief in traditional subject knowledge is one of the reasons why the private sector has so outstripped the maintained sector in the last few decades.

However, there are a two concerning trends that I have noticed:

  1. An increasing number of teachers in boarding schools have been subjected to two years of modern curriculum philosophy during their training on the PGCE. “Skills-based” curricula are terribly seductive. I should know: I was enthralled by them when I was a recent graduate teacher myself. What was the point of learning pointless lists of Kings and Queens, when – in the twenty first century – knowledge is just a click away? The modern child surely did not need such an outdated curriculum; he needed to be a flexible, resilient, lifelong learner instead! Without the underpinnings (scientific and philosophical) of a knowledge-based curriculum, many new teachers are prey to the seemingly more enlightened theories of Sir Ken Robinson et al. I have met many well-educated and well-meaning teachers who have been trained to look on traditional curricula with hostility. Such teachers are ever more numerous in UK boarding schools.
  2. For the same reasons that a “skills-based” curriculum is seductive to new teachers, it is also seductive to many new parents. Hence the ever more frequent promise on school websites that they are “preparing students for the twenty first century” by, for example, “developing skills of creativity, flexibility, lateral thinking and enterprise”; or by “fostering intuition and resilience” or by “nurturing empathy and courage.” If these melodious mission statements are achieved by sticking to a traditional subject-based curriculum, the potential for damage is limited; if they are accompanied, as they are in some boarding schools, by a subversion of the curriculum, the potential hazard is immense.

Tips for Parents

How can parents tell whether a boarding school curriculum is knowledge-based or skills-based?

Out of all the aspects of a school’s daily life, the curriculum is one of the hardest to get a handle on. Whenever I visit schools, I do my best – but am often left none the wiser about the content of a school’s lessons. This is particularly the case as few registrars ever have intricate knowledge of a school’s curriculum. A few tips will suffice, though I would be delighted to hear more:

  • Ask to be shown round by a pupil, and ask them what they have been learning in their subjects recently. I particularly enjoy asking about their History lessons. I was told by one group of prep school boarders, with inestimable delight in their eyes, about all the intricacies of the Battle of Waterloo. If pupils relay knowledge (as opposed to vaguer accounts of history projects or source analysis), it is a very healthy sign.
  • If you can’t gain a good idea of a school’s curriculum from its website, ask whether the Director of Studies would mind receiving an email from you. Ask him or her simply what principles underlie the school’s curriculum. If the emphasis is on knowledge over skills, or at least if knowledge is seen as the essential foundation block upon which skills can be built, you can rest easy.

This is a thorny but fundamental topic and, if parents have the time, one that well repays further reading.

Emotional Resilience

This sort of thing is increasingly prevalent in the independent sector:

Yesterday, it was announced that head teachers from 200 of the country’s leading independent schools will attend a conference next month to learn how to equip their pupils with emotional resilience, so that they can deal better with stress and failure.

(Full article in The Telegraph)

As ever with curricula that promote skills over knowledge, it is hard to find fault with the skill itself. Who wouldn’t want their children or pupils to be emotionally resilient? It is the method by which these skills are ‘taught’ that is more suspect. 

Pastoral care; competitive sports and examinations; the study of traditional subjects (especially the Humanities): all of these facets of school life, to name just a few, have been, in the hands of humane and experienced teachers, the seedbed of ’emotional resilience’ for many centuries. The only suggestions I could find in this article (“nurture a positive view of yourself”; “practice optimism”) seem at best banal. At worst, such suggested ‘interventions’ are an invasion of unnecessarily therapeutic language into an arena in which they may help to aggravate the very problem they purport to solve.