The new traditionalists

Posted on 12-02-2012

In last week’s TES, on the contents page there was a little ad for an article in the next edition. It said:

A glimpse of the future – Some academies and free schools are abandoning the traditional model of the teacher as the font of all knowledge.  Instead they act as a ‘facilitator’ of the student’s personalised learning.

I read things like this all the time, and they really, really annoy me. Can we have evidence, please, that ‘the traditional model of the teacher as the font of all knowledge’ is in fact present in a majority, or even a substantial minority, of schools today? Is it so dominant that it is possible for us to speak of ‘abandoning’ it?

In actual fact, the traditional model of the teacher as the font of all knowledge has been under attack intellectually for at least two centuries.  Rousseau criticised it in Emile; or an Education. Dickens criticised it in Hard Times and (less often mentioned this one) Our Mutual Friend.  In the 20th and 21st century, this traditional model has been under attack not just theoretically but practically.  Dewey and Piaget criticised the teacher-centric model and proposed concrete alternatives to it in the late 19th/early 20th century. AS Neill’s Summerhill was founded in 1921.  Dartington Hall was founded in 1926. Nor were these reforms confined to a few eccentric private schools. The six government-commissioned Hadow reports into primary education of the 1920s and 30s did not promote the idea of the teacher as the font of all knowledge. Instead, they argued that a good school ‘is not a place of compulsory instruction, but a community of old and young, engaged in learning by cooperative experiment’. Finally, and perhaps most influentially, the Piaget-inspired Plowden Report of 1967 completely bought into the idea that the child should be the co-constructor of learning and the teacher should merely facilitate.

Since Plowden, these views have in fact been the dominant view in classrooms and teacher training colleges up and down the country. Many classroom activities are, directly or indirectly,  inspired by these precepts. Ofsted approve of them. In my previous post, I analysed a May 2011 report by Ofsted which gave detailed descriptions of a range of ‘excellent’ English lessons. I don’t think one of these lessons involved the teacher being the font of all knowledge. Plenty involved children creating their own knowledge and teachers standing by facilitating. For example:

The different activities were as follows. One group was led by a pupil selected by the other pupils. This was a productive exercise in enlightened decision-making: ‘We’re not judging people. We choose a leader to be happy. We give a turn to everybody.’ As pupils took turns to read aloud, the leader’s role was to encourage others and to clarify, predict and question. Pupils shared ideas and knowledge, noting things down in their logbooks. As ‘teacher’, the group’s leader took on considerable responsibility. If anyone else seemed stuck, it was his or her role to suggest an answer.

So my question is, where is this alleged traditional model that these academies are abandoning? It is a figment of their imagination. They are abandoning something that has long been abandoned. Indeed, it has been abandoned so comprehensively that there is little institutional memory of what traditional teaching actually is – witness, in my previous post, Ofsted’s confusion about what grammar is.

Now, an academy or free school that is trying to resurrect traditional forms of teaching. That really would be original.

If you have any other examples of newspaper articles or blogs that suggest most schools teach ‘traditional’ curriculums using ‘traditional’ methods, then please post them in the comments. I find there are lots and lots – it would be good to record how widespread this delusion is.

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