Normally in this blog of mine, I try to keep the politics to a comfortable level and do my best to not get on my soapbox too frequently. However, something I read this morning has frustrated me so much that I can’t help but respond. Katharine Birbalsingh had an opinion piece in The Australian today based on a lecture she gave last Tuesday. If you can stand reading it all the way through, it makes *interesting* reading. She makes so many statements that I object to that it is hard to pick which to address first. Please keep in mind that I am a new teacher about to embark on my teaching career and I am doing my utmost to not come off as naive and overly idealistic.
So. Despite the fact that no-one really knows why the London riots happened, she makes extraordinary links between social upheaval and class struggles and an education system making changes to the way that teaching happens based on a whole raft of empirical research. She makes an impressively complex daisy chain of tenuous connections between innovative educational practice, a praise-all culture, a lack of discipline for unruly teenagers, MTV and a consumerist culture and therefore the cause of the riots. It’s as tenuous as Miranda Devine claiming that if only there were fathers around the riots would not have happened. There is no single cause for the London riots – it wasn’t race, class or geography, so why should it be group work and music videos?
The only research that she refers to is a University of Sheffield study that says that 20 percent of children leaving school in Britain are ‘functionally illiterate’. Although I can’t find the original published research, the original report in the Times is here. Now I would freely admit that 20% of students graduating with only basic literacy and numeracy is not what I would consider the best possible outcome. However, from what I’ve been able to gather there have been a lot of improvements in these areas over the last 60 years. There is also no data on how many graduates were functionally illiterate before 1979, so there is no way to know that the state of things now is any worse than it used to be when the ‘traditional’ style of education was the only way. Her interpretation of this research is disingenuous and casts aspersions on the teaching profession in general.
According to Birbalsingh, group work is apparently the real evil of the education system. If only teachers would return to the more traditional teaching styles of rigid rows and rote memorisation! “The schools struggle to keep order, partly because of the low standards of the education system but also because teachers are encouraged to constantly do group work and entertain the children” (emphasis mine). I think she is confusing making learning interesting and engaging for students (which makes it much more effective and long-lasting) with some song-and-dance show. Who wouldn’t rather be in an interesting classroom, rather than sitting in a boring lesson copying notes from the board the whole time? That choice is a no-brainer, surely.
Birbalsingh also rails against students learning by doing rather than just listening:
“General thinking around school being boring makes it possible for us to have reached a stage where teachers are no longer expected to teach and instead they must be facilitators of learning with constant group work going on, where the teacher is rarely standing in front of the class, but instead moves amongst the children who are all busy doing something. The idea here is that ‘doing’ is more interesting than ‘listening’. And that might very well be true. But the problem comes when we think that ‘doing’ needs to happen most of the time. This means that the teacher, a great source of knowledge, almost becomes redundant as a fountain of knowledge and instead becomes a bit of a referee. We don’t value the importance of teaching knowledge for the children to then do something with. Innovation is considered to be only ‘doing’ – a complete rejection of all that is traditional.”
There are a couple of things in this quote that I disagree with. Firstly, the simplistic assumption that ‘listening’ (i.e. being told) is always effective. How many of us have been in classes where you were just talked at and didn’t process or retain anything? If it was a subject you were inherently interested in, then you would retain the information better than if it wasn’t. I would wager that mediocre direct instruction is far less effective than mediocre use of student-centred strategies like group work. Secondly, she is claiming that the push is for all ‘doing’, all the time. As the empirical (evidence-based) research is demonstrating time and time again, no one particular teaching approach should be used all of the time in the classroom. There is a time for direct instruction (where the teacher tells and the students listen), but there should also be a time for collaborative group work, a time for individual quiet work, a time for class discussion and a time for project-based work. Any teacher who uses only one teaching approach in their classroom (regardless of which approach, traditional or otherwise) is not going to achieve the best learning outcomes for their students. However, the benefits of learning by doing (as opposed to just being force to listen) are clear. The ‘student as empty vessel waiting to be filled’ model is outdated and not backed up by the research. There is a clear difference between knowledge and understanding and between hearing and learning. Even as adults we know that we are more likely to have learned something and know how to apply it if we have been active in our learning. The relatively passive absorption of information is not completely ineffective; those of us who have gone to university can attest to that. However, we know now that there are better and more effective ways of getting students to learn, so why wouldn’t we use them wherever possible?
Birbalsingh also extols the virtues of a ‘traditional’ education based on the fact that there are many who have excelled allegedly because of that style of education: “What made these people into successes was the traditional educations that they had, the inspirational teachers who taught them, the love of learning that they picked up with their walled classrooms, desks in rows, with the teacher teaching at the front.” Given that this has been the only style of education for years, I believe that she may be conflating correlation and causation; did they do well because of or in spite of their traditional style of education? Was it the teaching style that made them what they were to become? Or was it an inspiring teacher, a particular novel or literary work, their extracurricular activities, the political movements of the time, or something completely unrelated to school altogether? I think she is stretching the bounds of credulity by making these sorts of claims, especially without knowing any of these people she refers to (Thomas Jefferson, Mark Zuckerberg, Barack Obama, Tony Benn, Ian Fleming). How is she to know? Just because they went to school with a ‘traditional’ education, it doesn’t mean that that is the reason they succeeded.
She also makes what seems to be a contradictory and illogical statement: “Revolutions are created with traditional thinking.” That’s not my understanding of revolution at all. I may well be wrong here, but wouldn’t revolutions require innovative thinking? New ways of doing things? How can we be revolutionary if we only use the same ways that have always been there?
Education should inspire, encourage and allow students the opportunity to learn in the most effective way possible for them. No single approach will be effective for all learners, so why be so dismissive?