It all kicked off on Twitter after I posted a journal article

Did I see that coming? Well, possibly, but I didn’t consciously set out to provoke such a Twitter response when I posted a link to my most recent academic publication on social media. Within a few hours of my article, New Right 2.0: Teacher populism on social media in England, being published by the British Educational Research Journal (BERJ) on Friday 24th July, the article was receiving unprecedented attention on Twitter. Unprecedented, not only for me, but for BERJ and for an academic publication on education research more generally.

Colleagues and friends contacted me over the weekend to ask me if I was OK. It seems that for many of my associates, the response to my BERJ article was predominantly hostile. A ‘pile on’ as it is frequently referred to.

A screenshot of a cell phone

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A screenshot of a cell phone

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It wasn’t so one-sided, however, I was receiving at least as much support through other communication channels as I was facing robust criticism on social media.

The article itself considers how Twitter – and specifically ‘#EduTwitter’ as is my research focus – can be productive and collaborative, but it can frequently become divisive and angry. The educational schism that my paper considers is between the Trads and the Progs. The Trads or traditionalists are a consequence, I argue in the paper, of three factors: the New Right, the coalition of social conservatives and economic liberals that emerged in the 1950s in the UK and US as a reaction to post-war social democracy, Keynesianism and the welfare state; the erosion of state-sector teachers’ working conditions over the last twenty years; and as a result of effects of social media. Trads advocate for robust discipline in the classroom, educational practices that are orientated toward memorisation and for research evidence based on ‘scientific’ research methods. The political positioning of the Trads is characteristically populist, the unheeded teacher against a progressive elite. I coin the term ‘micropopulism’ to distinguish this niche populist tendency. The Progs emerged as a less coherent and less organised reaction to the Trads’ social media presence.

It was pointed out that while much of the reaction to my article denied the existence of Trad micropopulism, the actual Twitter reaction to the article provided demonstrable real-time evidence of the phenomenon and the main argument of the paper: that social media is divisive and can amplify populism in unproductive ways.

The reaction to my article did feature a populist attack on institutions – the academy (i.e. higher education institutions), the British Education Research Association (the professional association for which BERJ is the flagship academic journal) and for peer review.

A screenshot of a cell phone

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A screenshot of a cell phone

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In the reaction, I am characterised as a ‘gatekeeper’ for the progressive elite that exists in the academy and that has been central to the power that has foisted unscientific progressive education approaches on teachers. There were further important observations in the reaction to my article. I was robustly challenged as characterising Trads as right wing. In fact, at no point during the paper do I make such a suggestion. I do argue that there is a relationship between new right think tanks and Trad micropopulism on social media, but I have never believed that Trads’ primary political associations or voting have been for the Conservative party. What I do find interesting is those self-identifying leftist teachers should be so enthusiastic about the reforms of a new right politician such as Michael Gove. The apparent benefit of Gove’s curriculum reforms seemingly outweighs the transfer of millions of pounds worth of public assets to private interests as part of the ramping up of school academisation since 2010 by the Coalition and subsequent Conservative governments.

 

This changes everything

I was feeling numb at five minutes to ten last Thursday. I had been campaigning intensely for the Labour party – both professionally and in a personal capacity – for months. It came up on Twitter, the mainstream media were saying that exit polls predicted a hung parliament. And while the Conservative party were predicted to be the largest party, the result for me marked a major change in British politics. It was going to be an exciting night.

So it turned out. As the results came in through the night it was clear that Labour had increased its share of the vote from April polls of about 25 per cent to 40 per cent in the General Election. This was unprecedented.

What is so significant, is the election result demonstrates strong support for a radically different economic and social policy. Radically different from the consensus that had existed between the major parties since the 1970s.

Keynes is back baby. The manufactured consent around a liberal/ neoliberal political economy which focuses on controlling public-sector spending and facilitating wealth creation has been shaken to its core. Particularly because it was the cause of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis and it prompted the austerity approach adopted by the Coalition government and Tory governments from 2010 to 2017. Neoliberalism and austerity has undermined public services and exacerbated inequality.

When I say Keynes is back, I mean that we stop the purblind view of the importance of wealth creators, but begin to look again at the role of government spending in creating demand. Wealth creators cannot attract wealth unless ordinary people have sufficient money to purchase things in the economy.

Government can increase that wealth through redistribution (e.g. progressive taxation), increased investment in the economy (e.g. through infrastructure, health and education) and more robust regulation of the financial sector (addressing exploitation of private debt). Since the UK government has a sovereign currency it can use its capacity to spend, tax and regulate to rebalance the economy.

Keynes is back, but it’s been upgraded by contemporary economists. I have written about it in the following posts:

http://stevenwatson.co.uk/2017/01/mmt-school-spending/

http://stevenwatson.co.uk/2017/02/spendandtax/

The consequence for teachers, educators and academics is that we have to start thinking differently. We have to think about what education might look like in a post-neoliberal world. Some of my thoughts are in the following post:

http://stevenwatson.co.uk/2017/05/laboureducationge2017/

Since the Labour Party’s positive manifesto has been welcomed by the country, we must now go further and think about how we transform our education system. Transform from a marketised, privatised and commodified system into a democratic system that serves communities and the nation in an inclusive way. Paying attention to social justice, peace, environment, community cohesion and individual and collective intellectual development. A system that must effectively serve people more and serve less those that run and control it.

Exciting times, I look forward to the debate.

 

Cultural practices, political economy and social psychology in the similarity of practices in schools

I have been interested in cultural practices in teaching for a few years. So I was interested how this resonated with Steven Puttick’s recent article in School Leadership and Management , describing an ethnographic study of geography departments.

I say I am interested in cultural practices, by this I mean that I make the assumption that within schools there are shared behaviours. Not exact imitations, but there are characteristic routines and patterns of behaviour and there is a shared language and discourse.Continue reading “Cultural practices, political economy and social psychology in the similarity of practices in schools”

Arendt’s crisis in education

On the Michaela Community School (UK) website, Hannah Arendt’s 1954 essay on education, The Crisis in Education, is used to justify their approach to strict discipline policy and a curriculum based on knowledge.

They defend their approach against criticism, that their approach is authoritarian, they say authoritarianism applies only to violent totalitarian states and make a clear distinction between their own strict behaviour policy and state-level violent authoritarianism:

To brand Michaela Community School as authoritarian, especially without even visiting, is astonishing. Authoritarian regimes have blood on their hands. They have imprisoned, tortured, executed and assassinated millions of people in illegal killings around the world. Frankly, to compare Michaela to these states is an insult to all those who have died resisting these brutal regimes (Michaeala Blog post).

My purpose here is not a critique of Michaela Community School, I have my reservations about it, I have not visited, we’ll leave it there. But Michaela did lead me to Hannah Arendt’s essay at a time when I have been reading her work more generally. However, her essay is misrepresented on the Michaela blog, that was my first impression at least. So, this blog post (essay) is something of an investigation from that starting point. To be fair Arendt’s essay is a complex piece, wrestling with her own self-acknowledged ignorance about public education in the USA and drawing on her own ideas about authority and ideas of past and future. Her philosophy is so entwined with totalitarianism in Nazi Germany and Stalin’s communist Russia that these themes weave through the essay as barely seen threads.

Arendt’s essay on education features in her book Between Past and Future first published in 1961 in the US. Jerome Kohn’s introduction in the later Penguin Edition (Arendt, 2006) explains that the underlying theme in each essay in Between Past and Future is the rupture in the Western philosophic-political tradition. In the first essay, “Tradition and the Modern Age”, Arendt presents a view that the tradition of political philosophy culminates and ends in the thought of Karl Marx. The philosophical ‘tradition’ was of that of the authority of the philosopher and it was the function of ordinary people to enact such ‘truths’. Marx turns this on its head; thought and political ideas were more pragmatic and dialectic. The philosophical authoritative tradition was broken with a new conceptual assemblage, one of tensions, peoples, society, class and struggle. This is at the heart of what Arendt refers to as a crisis in authority, not necessarily in a deprecative way, but as an observer, as a political philosopher.

Before looking at Arendt’s essay in detail, I want to set out the context – the context of public education in the USA in the 1950s at the time when she penned her image of educational crisis. Arendt arrived in the USA in 1941, a Jewish exile from Nazi Germany. Public education in the USA had been undergoing reforms for a many years. Cremin (1961) traces changes in American education back to the 1890s . Cremin[1] cites the influences of William James, Francis W. Parker, Edward L Thorndike and John Dewey which all stem from Herbert Spencer. These influences led to the espousal of child-centred or progressive education. Egan (2003) characterises progressivism as based on a belief that in order to educate a child effectively “…it is vital to attend to [their] nature, and particularly to their modes of learning and stages of development, and to accommodate educational practice to what we can discover about these” (Egan, 2003, p. 5).

Cuban (1993) describes how in the decades after 1890 there was increased efforts to introduce student-centred teaching practices in schools. “By 1940, the vocabulary of pedagogical progressives had rapidly turned into the mainstream talk of both teachers and administrators” (p. 45). However, in spite of the discourse, the reality in schools between 1920 and 1940 was that teachers constructed hybrid practices based on traditional teacher-centred practice and progressive child-centred practice. Cuban considers that teachers faced a fundamental dilemma as they attempted to reconcile the influence of progressives with the day-to-day realities of schools, which more naturally calls for austere teacher-centred approaches. There was something in the process of implementation of progressivism that contorted it and led it away from the advocates’ vision [2].

Dewey’s vision for an education based on the needs of individual children was, according to Cremin (1964), misinterpreted and misunderstood. It had been Dewey’s intention to develop a curriculum that started with the child’s experience and culminate in more traditional disciplines. However, this was lost in a wave of national anti-intellectualism (Toch, 1991 cited in Kinsler & Gamble, 2001). Anti-intellectualism appears a defining feature of public life in the USA, at times, like the present, it becomes fervent, at other times it abates. Hofstadter (1963), in a Pulitzer Prize winning work of non-fiction on the subject, attributed American anti-intellectualism to religion, politics and business. Through this, it is likely that progressivism was led to abandon the teaching of knowledge in the traditional sense, but this was not a Deweyian vision.

The American mind was shaped in the mold of early modern Protestantism. Religion was the first arena for American intellectual life, and thus the first arena for an anti-intellectual impulse. Anything that seriously diminished the role of rationality and learning in early American religion would later diminish its role in secular culture. The feeling that ideas should above all be made to work, the disdain for doctrine and for refinement in ideas, the subordination of men of ideas to men of emotional power or manipulative skill are hardly innovations of the twentieth century; they are inheritances from American Protestantism (Hofstadter, 1963, p. 55).

McCarthyism in the 1950s was something of a past zenith in American political anti-intellectualism where critical thought was treated with at best disdain at worst as treasonable. It is important to note that at the time Joseph McCarthy was leading political repression, Arendt was contemplating authority and crisis in education.

For education, there is something of a perfect storm for progressivism, the misinterpretation of the educational philosophy of progressive child-centred education, the challenges and twists as reform ideas are implemented in the classroom against an anti-intellectual backdrop with derision for knowledge and ideas. It is not my intention in this essay to defend progressive or child-centred education, but I am in accord with some of its philosophy, although I am opposed to approaches that rely on children (re)discovering knowledge. John Dewey was undoubtedly a progressive educator but with a strong sense of scholarship and intellectualism. Hofstadter is critical of Dewey’s progressivism, but there appears to be a misunderstanding of Dewey’s educational philosophy, which an aspect of is as follows:

…education is neither a process of unfolding from within nor is it a training of faculties resident in mind itself. It is rather the formation of mind by setting up certain associations or connections of content by means of subject matter presented from without. Education proceeds by instruction taken in a strictly literal sense, a building into the mind from without (Dewey, 1916, chapter 6).

There is little sense here and in other work, that Dewey was an anti-intellectual progressive, his education ideas were progressive and child-centred but not in the absence of knowledge.

In the context of Arendt writing her essay on the crisis in education, there are particular circumstances that must be considered:

  • There is a progressive child-centred reform agenda in public education in the 1950s.
  • Practically many teachers speak the talk of progressivism but classrooms still have the character of traditional teaching with, for example, the traditional classroom formatting, tables in rows and teacher-directed learning.
  • There is a cultural context of anti intellectualism further exacerbated by McCarthyism from 1947 to 1956.

It is reasonable to conclude, as Arendt did, that the crisis of education was a result of anti-intellectual progressivism. Let us now look at the particulars and contexts of her direct criticism of progressive education. She summarises these “ruinous measures” as three assumptions as follows:

The first is that there exist a child’s world and a society formed among children that are autonomous and must insofar be left to govern… [The adult] can only tell him to do what he likes and then prevent the worst from happening (Arendt, 2006, p. 177).

In this, Arendt characterises progressivism in terms of children’s discovery, where children live in a separate and distinct world from adults and this, as a tenet of child-centred teaching, must be respected and supported. She is deeply critical of the formation of what she sees as a separate child and adult world, with children characterised as an oppressed minority. She then goes on to address the relationship between knowledge and pedagogy.

The second basic assumption which has come into question in the present crisis has to do with teaching. Under the influences of of modern psychology and the tenets of pragmatism, pedagogy has developed in such a way as to be wholly emancipated from the actual material to be taught…This in turn means not only that the students are actually left to their own resources but the most legitimate source of the teacher’s authority as the person who, turn it whatever way one will, still knows more and can do more than oneself is no longer effective (p. 178 – 179).
Arendt’s third assumption is aimed at the notion that “you can know and understand only what you have done yourself….”(p. 179), the teacher’s role is to not to pass on ‘dead knowledge’ but to “…constantly demonstrate how it’s produced” (p. 179). This seems, on the face of it, the dichotomy of knowledge and skill that are regularly barked over on social media today.

Arendt’s three progressive assumptions are: a) the existence of an autonomous child world, b) that pedagogy does not involve the teaching of knowledge or teacher authority and c) learning is doing rather than the acquisition of knowledge. But this is not the main point of Arendt’s essay as I will show, and indeed, having launched what appears to be an assault on progressivism she draws back. Vis-à-vis the third progressive assumption, she says, ” this description is at fault … because it obviously exaggerates in order to drive home a point” (Arendt, 2006, p. 180). This is the point about her criticism of progressivism, she is making a point. Yet reflecting and echoing the media coverage “reported daily in newspapers” (p. 170), she recognises that while newspapers are reporting declining standards, and that while she restates the above well-rehearsed criticisms of progressive education, she acknowledges that “Certainly more is involved here than the puzzling question of why Johnny can’t read” (p. 171). In other words, there is something more than an assault on progressivism. But there is a legitimate criticism to be made about the implementation of an anti-intellectual progressivism.

Arendt goes on to state a critical question and what is the crux of the essay:

Which aspects of the modern world and its crisis have actually revealed themselves…And, second, what can we learn from this crisis for the essence of education…? (p. 180).

Arendt’s criticism of progressivism is largely built around the idea of authority. While the author of the piece for Michaela Community School site has taken that to mean that children need strict discipline, the point Arendt is making is wholly more subtle. You see for Arendt authority demands obedience, but what she means by this can easily be misunderstood.

Since authority always demands obedience, it is commonly mistaken for some form of power or violence. Yet authority precludes the use of external means of coercion; where force is used, authority itself has failed. Authority, on the other hand, is incompatible with persuasion, which presupposes equality and works through a process of argumentation. Where arguments are used, authority is left in abeyance (Arendt, 2006, p. 92).

For Arendt, the essence of authority is hierarchy and this comes from the tradition of intellectual hierarchy as part of the western philosophical political tradition. But, as she observes, this authority of tradition, based on and in the past is contemporarily in crisis. This is the backdrop for the compilation of essays in which The Crisis of Education appears.

This leaves us with something of an unresolved problem, having dispatched the progressive educational model in which children are treated as a distinct society, in which they have to form their own authority and politic, we cannot then turn to the traditional authority as an escape. What Arendt drives at is the superiority of adult over child, but this is temporary as the child develops. Arendt’s sense of authority in education is based on a fluid dynamic of adult superiority which evolves as the child develops. It is what I might describe as ‘professional relationships’ to trainees on an initial teacher education programme. It is the idea that the teacher has adult authority and can communicate a set of rules or principles, but at the same time the child is growing to adulthood and must ultimately be respected as an equal. There is in no sense the espousal of a zero-tolerance or no-excuses approach to education as a resolution of the crisis in education.

Arendt’s criticism of progressive education, as she believed to be existent in American schools, is reminiscent of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies:

…by being emancipated from the authority of adults the child has not been freed but has been subjected to a much more terrifying and truly tyrannical authority, the tyranny of the majority[…]the tyranny of their own group against which they cannot rebel, with which, because they are children, they cannot reason, and out of which they cannot flee because the world of adults is barred to them (Arendt, 2006, p. 178).

Overall, Arendt raises some valid criticisms about education, criticism that continue to be relevant. In the essay, she does not propose a particular solution. This is understandable since, as she acknowledges, she is not a professional educator. She suggests that necessarily education must be conservative, in the sense of ‘conservation’.

[Conservatism] is the essence of educational activity, whose task is to cherish and protect something—the child against the world, the world against the child, the new against the old, the old against the new (Arendt, 2006, p. 188).

But she is happy to recognise that this is a paradox, because, she says, if the world strives to retain the status quo, then this can only lead to destruction. It follows that what vexes educators is the paradox of educational conservatism in a changing world. She observes:

Exactly for the sake of what is new and revolutionary in every child, education must be conservative; it must preserve the newness and introduce it as a new thing in an old world, which, however revolutionary its actions may be, is from the standpoint of the next generation, superannuated and close to destruction (p. 189).

In spite of this paradoxical and impossible demand on the educator, Arendt makes a clear statement of what schools should do, “…the function of a school is to teach children what the world is like and not to instruct them in the art of living” (p. 192).

To conclude, Arendt identifies the problems with 1950s American educational progressivism, the criticisms are justified in the historical context.  What she develops from this is what schools should do, though this is paradoxical. Can we, therefore, derive anything from Arendt’s critique? Yes, I think she sets educators a considerable challenge to deliver a critical progressivism, not dissimilar to the approach put forward by Dewey. In that the educator, the teacher that is, must manage tensions of conservatism and progress, and past and future, in a developmentally appropriate way. What is clear is that Arendt is not arguing for a strict and exclusively knowledge-based education as proposed by the Michaela Community School.

Notes

[1] I have cited Cremin’s historical analysis from:

Egan, K. (2003). Getting it wrong from the beginning: Our progressivist inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget. New Haven: Yale University Press.

[2] I imagine something similar to Black and Wiliam’s ideas of formative assessment being implemented, or Dweck’s mindset theory. The implementation of which takes little account of cultural practices and the result is kind of superficial enactment rather than principled implementation. This diminishes the power of the original idea.

References

Arendt, H. (2006). Between past and future: eight exercises in political thought. New York: Penguin Books.
Cremin, L. A. (1961). The transformation of the school; progressivism in American education, 1876-1957 (1st ed). New York: Knopf.
Cuban, L. (1993). How teachers taught: Constancy and change in American classrooms, 1890-1990 (2nd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.
Dewey, J (1916). Democracy and education: an introduction to the philosophy of education. The Macmillan Co.
Egan, K. (2003). Getting it wrong from the beginning: Our progressivist inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Hofstadter, R. (1963). Anti-intellectualism in American life (1st ed). New York: Knopf.
Kinsler, K., & Gamble, M. (2001). Reforming schools. London ; New York: Continuum.

The progressive teaching tyranny myth

The argument goes that between 2004 and 2010 or thereabouts, there was a period of oppression in which teachers could not express their views. Or, if they wanted to pursue more traditional teaching approaches, there was a conspiracy by the educational establishment. An establishment consisting of university schools and faculties of education and local authorities backed up by the National Strategies.

Thanks to Michael Gove and a small army of teacher bloggers this tyranny has been driven back and exposed as spurious expertise. Now we live in a world in which teachers are free, they have a voice. Education research has been exposed for what it is: unscientific, biased and amounting to quackery. Now the only research of any value should be scientific. Based on hard fact. Evidence-based.

Like many stories of passion and daring emancipation, what I describe in the previous paragraph is a myth. What is more, it has been fostered by those ideologically pursuing freemarket state education supported by those with a vested interest in privatising schools. And perpetuated by teacher bloggers seeking a narrative for their protests.

The problem is that the myth does not reflect the fact that in schools teaching has remained, through this time, resolutely traditional and teacher-centred, with perhaps some sprinkling of progressive features. Pupils working in groups, for example. But for the most part teaching is characterised by a teacher demonstration, explanation, instruction; followed by pupils working predominantly independently on a well-defined task with the aim of developing fluency and factual recall. Finally the teacher reviews and assesses the work. Now this pattern of practice has not changed in Europe for decades and even centuries. It’s just the way schools happen to work reasonably smoothly.

As educational research has emerged in the last 30 to 40 years, it has drawn on multiple disciplines and a range of methodologies in order to address research questions about the nature of learning. The sum of that research would naturally lead to questions about the effectiveness of practice in schools. Can it be done differently and more effectively ways? These questions are reasonable.

Educational researchers have bumbled around doing some outstanding work with meagre resources and working in a fledging field of research. And sure they have issued challenges to policymakers and to the teaching profession. And sure they have been interested in a progressing education so that the outcomes for pupils mean that they are better equipped to improve their own circumstances, the circumstance of their communities and society as a whole.

One thing to be sure is that progressive reforms have been an abject failure and that they have had negligible impact on practice. That’s not say that research has not developed a sophisticated body of knowledge though.

Meanwhile, in England, there has been an increasing politicisation of state education. Increasing public spending, for which politicians have felt a need to justify to the electorate. In addition there has been, since the late 1970s, a freemarket mentality which has become something of a political consensus and political orthodoxy. This is based on assumptions that the private sector is lean, efficient and innovative and that the public sector is fat and lazy. What this overlooks is that the private sector seeks a financial return, while the public sector is concerned with societal returns. Or returns in terms of social and community capital.

The combination of freemarket thinking and the need to justify spending has led to the development of the accountability system that we currently have. With the central scrutiny of schools’ examination results, the Ofsted attack dog, what has been unleashed is a highly punitive system that mimics an idealised competitive market. Public education is on its way to being outsourced to edubusinesses and multi academy chains.

The complement to this privatisation is a curriculum delivery model of teaching. Teachers delivering preprepared curricula tested through large-scale trials and delivered using traditional approaches. This is combined with profitable frequent pupil testing. Effectively education and teaching becomes commodified.

These pressures, however, have been mistakenly attributed to the reforms emerging from research. The anxieties and pressures teachers experience as a result of this hard punitive accountability regime have been directed toward those in academia who have been seeking reform for the improvement of educational outcomes. Academics have at times, I concede, clashed with teachers’ reluctance to move away from orthodoxy. However the bitterness and anger is wholly misdirected.

The sometimes furious debates on twitter over which is best, progressive or traditional is a false dichotomy. It hides the real issue. It has become an expression of confusion and anger relating to the complex wider picture. And this is why I am reluctant to engage in it, because there is a much bigger fight to be had. That’s with the people who perpetuate the myth, policy makers pursuing ideological privatisation of our education system and with those who have vested interests and something to gain out of the current policy direction.

It is time to see through the myth.

Update 14 April 2016

I had not realised how that the Observational and Classroom Learning Evaluation (Oracle) Project that my colleague Maurice Galton was involved in, in the 1970s, shows the limitation of so-called progressive reforms, like for example the Plowden Report (1967). The ORACLE report revealed limited impact of the progressive ideals put forward by Plowden.

http://www.educationengland.org.uk/documents/plowden/plowdenore-06.html

 

 

E D Hirsch’s visit to the UK and the neo-traditional teacher bloggers

I picked up on Hirsch’s visit to the UK, when I noticed excitement amongst a number of teacher bloggers on Twitter. Though, I don’t follow them directly, there was an overspill of retweet excitement, arousing some of the tweeters that I follow.

I was aware of E D Hirsch from a general knowledge of education philosophy. I don’t know too much about him apart from his interest in promoting the learning of ‘knowledge’. I was also aware that his work had become fundamental to the educational reforms of Michael Gove when he was Secretary of State for Education.

Hirsch’s work is also very popular with neo-traditionalists in education, for example education bloggers like Tom Bennett and the neo-traditionalist author and Ark Academy head of research Daisy Christodoulou. There are number of others who argue for a teacher-led profession without the input of expertise from the educational research establishment. The education research establishment are often painted as the pedlars of pedagogical quackery of limited efficacy and reliant on dubious sources of evidence. One of the chief criticisms of the neo-traditionalist is that their evidence is largely baseless and flawed.

I watched quite a lot of Hirsch’s talk at Emmanuel College in Cambridge via periscope, he was hosted by the University’s commercial examining offshoot, Cambridge Assessments.

Hirsch contrasts the learning of knowledge with Piagetian constructivsim. Hirsch argues that knowledge should take precedence over child-centred learning (Piaget developmental constructivism). This he believes is necessary to promote equity in education, curricula need to have core knowledge (particularly at primary level). Knowledge is a necessary precursor to skills. He believes that knowledge is secondary to child-centred discovery learning in schools, the emphasis should be on knowledge, so that the disadvantaged can have improved life opportunities.

It is easy to see why they neo-traditionalists admire this, since it supports traditional pedagogy and practice: teacher-led classrooms involving teacher exposition, demonstration followed by pupil drill and practice. Importantly it is consistent with their rejection of academic educational research. Research which has drawn on, for example, Vygotskian sociocultural theory and the introduction of constructivist approaches. It also serves the Conservative vision of teacher-led education, where valued practice is a traditional type of lesson. I recall one neo-traditional teacher blogger saying, “I talk, they listen, how hard can it be?”

Hirsch’s philosophy is not necessarily of this political agenda or of the neo-traditional movement, however, he is a learned voice whose thesis has been adopted to give the movement philosophical authority.

I have nothing against knowledge in curriculum, pedagogy and practice. What I have trouble with is knowledge proceeding skills as a dogma. It is necessary, as a learning imperative, to manage the two side-by-side and in tandem. That is a principal skill required of any teacher. Advances in social cognitive theory, cognitive psychology and neuroscience show that knowledge and skills are inseparable human characteristics.

I have sympathy with the neo-traditionalist view that the teacher needs to have stronger standing both in the classroom and professionally. However, the focus on knowledge is not the solution. This diminishes the complexity of the classroom, teaching and of society.