Posted by: mrlock | October 19, 2014

The liberal arts and a liberal education

The Challenges of the Liberal Arts and Schools

On 14th October, I was delighted to be invited to speak on the above topic at Kings College London. The conference was an all-day one on the liberal arts featuring, amongst others, Frank Furedi, Jesse Norman MP, Dr John Taylor of Rugby School, Tony Sewell and many other academics and people who know a lot more than me.

In my session on schools were Eddie Playfair, Principal of Newham Sixth Form College, Hywel Jones, Headteacher of West London Free School, Martin Robinson (who organised it jointly with Aaron Rosen of Kings), chaired by Claire Fox, director of the Institute of Ideas. Tom Sherrington, Headteacher of Highbury Grove school was also due to be there, but was unable to be. This was a shame, as I’d anticipate a level of disagreement between some of the ideas on the panel (including mine) and what I’d anticipate Tom would say.

Here is what I said:

It’s been a really interesting day, and I’m delighted to have been a part of it. In one of the previous sessions, someone said they felt a bit like an imposter. Well in this room of people with many letters, Drs, Professors, even MPs, I feel a lot like an imposter.

I’m just a teacher.

I grew up being told, and believing, that the sole reason I needed to be educated was to get a job. My Headteacher when I was aged 9 mentioned that I should try to get into university. I aspired to do that, just so that I could get a better job. And then having gone to university, I got a job as a teacher. That narrative was exactly the narrative ascribed to me by each of the eight schools I attended. Education is functional and to get a job.

I’m quite pleased about the outcome in one sense. I like teaching, and I like kids. I love my job.

Despite having a philosophy degree, I completed a mathematics PGCE. When I was participating in my PGCE, I recall having lectures on multiple intelligences and learning styles. I recall learning about differentiation for the least able and I wrote an essay on teaching a student with Aspergers. I remember being awake at 1am evaluating my lessons and again at 4am planning them in order to ensure they were “Blue Peter” like – i.e. that there were plenty of different activities to keep the children engaged. I don’t remember very much mathematics.

Then I got my first job teaching. I had QTS. I remember existing through a ‘skills focussed’ national curriculum, being told to prepare my pupils for the 21st century by ensuring they were creative thinkers, team workers at the same time as being independent enquirers, self-managers as well as effective participators, but reflective thinkers most of all, and my job as a teacher was to facilitate students’ engagement in these skills that underpin our curriculum because these are the type of skills that employers liked. This links with my opening – education is increasingly seen in this technocratic sense as a means to an end rather than end in itself, and I posit that this in part explains the skills focus over the last 30 years. As I moved into senior management I perpetuated this orthodoxy: it doesn’t matter what the content is as long as it develops their transferable skills.

In 2008 I embarked on the only piece of formal education in my life that hadn’t been functional, at least in my reason for it, and RS Peters, Michael Oakeshott, PH Hirst and the other liberal educators were a footnote in the Philosophy of Education MA. This interest led me ultimately to Martin’s book (Trivium 21st century) and to this conference.

So given this orthodoxy of the last 15 years and longer, why wouldn’t pupils, parents, schools and society at large not view education as training and nothing more? Why do we learn things that we might not use later in life? And what’s the point in getting smarter if it doesn’t mean we can earn more money or buy more stuff. And in any case, if we can work in groups or be prepared for jobs that don’t yet exist, we’re better off and richer than if we know lots of facts in lots of disciplines. Though it sounds ridiculous when said like this, this view has a lot of traction.

I despair that when asked about why they’re in school, many pupils refer to getting a good job. Similarly, colleagues presented with challenging students or students not motivated in class sometimes ask, rhetorically but not without damage: what do you think you’re going to do for a living when you leave school?

The idea of education for the sake of education often appears lost – and while I think schools should be a part of the solution, I think that currently they’re usually part of the problem. The orthodoxy of the curriculum of the last twenty years has left absent the idea that education allows one to be free. The idea that we can be inducted into mankind’s conversation in order that we might further that conversation, or even undermine that conversation is one that is wholly marginalised to the point that it is not recognised.

So is there any cause for optimism amongst this observation of dystopia?

Well, insights from cognitive science, including the requirement for a rich knowledge base – a schema of knowledge in order to ‘stick’ new knowledge and concepts to – demand that we teach pupils to know a lot about a lot. Of course, there is nothing necessarily liberal about some insights from cognitive science – such as direct instruction, regular quizzing and so on. These could be put to use to train pupils for employment or for a whole number of illiberal ends. At the same time, I maintain that those teachers and schools which are engaging in some of the lessons from cognitive science are correlated closely with those that recognise that for pupils to be culturally literate, we should expose them to the richest works of literature, chronology in history, and the rigour of grammar and language.

The insights of cognitive science also allow us to achieve the ends of a liberal education better (and perhaps challenge the notion that a liberal education is an education of elites). The idea that we must induct novice pupils, including and particularly those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, with the basics in order that they can later as experts experience and participate in that rich cultural inheritance that has been handed down through the generations – in order that they may see the virtue and beauty in education. That education is its own reward. These are ideas I’ve heard more in the last few years (while still being marginalised) than I have in a decade or two before. Many of my teaching colleagues won’t thank me for saying I think a part of the reason for this is the previous secretary of state for education, Michael Gove.

On top of this, the accountability regime increasingly demands that pupils gain access to the best that has been thought and said. We’ve seen recent efforts to ‘clever up’ the curriculum and schools can no longer get away with farming pupils through BTECs worth 23 GCSE equivalents to climb the league tables. Though I think there is a pernicious effect of the accountability and assessment regime, I think recent moves should be welcomed by those that promote the liberal arts.

A small number of schools, like the one fellow panellist Hywel leads (West London Free School), have been opened with the explicit aim of giving young people access to the best humanity can offer in terms of what has been said, thought, written and performed, and my hope is that those schools can illuminate an alternative to the functionalism of the orthodoxy of current UK schools. The autonomy genie being let out of the bottle may allow us to not only debate an alternative, but to show one (and I’ve thought long and hard about whether I can afford to apply to open another school that might explore that as well) – an alternative that spearheads a revolution in our classrooms that allows our kids, my kids, to be educated for its own sake while facilitating freedom and liberty of thought. There’s space to recapture education and give our kids a rich cultural inheritance.

Of course this in itself presents a challenge. If schools are autonomous they are of course free to choose not to pursue the ends of a liberal education. And of course we may respond that the market-based argument that parents will prefer schools which do. But I wonder if that is true. The orthodoxy of ‘gaining a good job’ is one which is shared by many parents (though it’s not as prevalent as I thought – asking the philosophical question about being a pig satisfied or a human dissatisfied, an uneducated human satisfied or Socrates dissatisfied has meant that I have had productive conversations about education with parents who do see education as having intrinsic value). Parents certainly share an interest in results and exam success. Two strategies are open to us – work hard on parents to get them to see value in a liberal education and/ or reduce the autonomy of individual schools. My view is that autonomy allows us to do the first and hence we should resist the latter of these two strategies.

The challenges for the liberal arts are hence:

  • to ensure in an era of autonomy this conversation we are having here today is reflected in the planning of new schools and in the existing school curriculum
  • to oppose any retreat in the political priorities and the direction of travel
  • to create further and wider opportunities to open up this argument, exploring dissensus and challenging the orthodoxy in order that we might open up space for the development of the arts
  • ensure that lack of consensus does not mean paralysis – those that are in favour of a liberal arts curriculum may not agree on the specifics, but there is a long road to travel to get us to the paradigm of argument reflected at Kings today.
  • develop a suggested curriculum appropriate for schools to adapt, that considers what a rich education would be in the UK. I think Martin has done much of this. Earlier in the day Martin expressed a view that we are not here to create a manifesto. While I think his book is a part of a manifesto, I think we should have the aim of creating something that schools can take on, to prepare young people for broad academic study later in life.

I think schools are a part of the problem, but I can see how they might be part of the solution in the future. If we were in 2001 and I had the views I do, I think I’d be pessimistic to the point of defeatist, but both structures and elements of the debate that have crept into the mainstream have given some cause for cautious optimism.

Later in the questions I don’t recall the actual question, but I said that one of the problems with an ‘interdisciplinary approach’, which I had heard a lot about from undergraduate students and colleagues who are teaching at universities, is the same as the problem with talking of transferable skills. That is that schools hear the message that pupils need these skills and take the implications to a literal extent – they start teaching them. The problem is that to develop these skills we need to know a lot in a lot of different domains, and while I can accept it is possible that undergraduate students do so, I do not accept that school age pupils do.

Claire Fox, chairing, summarised my answer with “we hear universities saying schools need thinking skills so schools hear that and teach thinking skills”

There were a number of other questions I was (rudely, I have to say) told from the floor there wasn’t time for me to answer by the co-ordinator from the floor. This particularly irked as each of the other panellists had had time to reflect

I wanted to make six points in reply to questions:

  • In response to ‘what is knowledge?’ I’d come up with a quick definition – ‘a set of true facts that might connect together that have transferred to long term memory’. I could probably expand on this, but that’s what I was going to say that at the time.
  • Hence, a relative approach to truth is unhelpful in ascertaining what we want our pupils to know and experience. I recognise there is a philosophical debate, though I think it’s overstated and actually pretty ridiculous because the ‘debate’ rests on a problem with logic.
  • I think we overestimate what pupils know, because we find our knowledge fluent. So we’ve forgotten the struggle we had to get to know some of our essential core knowledge. Hence we instinctively think interdisciplinary approaches are useful at school. I think these instincts are mistaken.
  • In response to ‘what do you think of the decoupling of A-level, “good, perhaps there will be more time for study and practice of content. I can’t see that more exams at 17 are helpful, particularly when this means 3 months of exam preparation rather than proper teaching.
  • In response to contributions from Eddie Playfair and Martin Robinson, it’s not that I don’t think ‘learning by doing’ is wrong, per se, it’s more that I think we need to be careful when ‘learning by doing’ that the pupils are thinking of what we want them to be. It’s hence more challenging to anticipate what we are getting pupils to think about than, for example, planned sequential direct interaction. It’s easy to be dragged into the pupils thinking about something completely separate and a phrase Daniel Willingham popularised – memory is the residue of thought – comes to mind here. I think issues of ‘fun’ and ‘engagement’ are actually secondary here. The key issue is ‘what is the content that pupils are thinking about?’ The secondary point is that I’m not against doing! I think practice is essential to ensure pupils know what they have been taught, and persistent, spaced, repeated practice is a central technique. What is practice if not doing?
  • When listening to the undergraduate students (all of whom were studying for liberal arts degrees) speaking earlier in the day, it sounded like none were prepared for university study in the liberal arts. They were in some ways ‘lost’ (though most seemed comfortable with that). I heard a lot about ‘attracting the best students’. The issue here is twofold: can we prepare students better with a lot of background knowledge in order that they are less ‘lost’ when they are ‘lost’ and can find their way out, and does our curriculum prepare ALL students for broad academic study of the liberal arts (almost universally the answer is tragically ‘no’), hence ensuring the liberal arts is still, at the the moment, accessed by a select few or an elite (I’d guess largely consisting of those that go to private schools).

Afterwards, Claire Fox said to me she thought that the stuff on cognitive science was a distraction and “not the best way to win the argument”. I’m not sure I agree, but it’s given me pause for thought.

Eddie Playfair has written about his contribution here and further reflections here.

Michael Fordham assisted me by challenging my first draft of what I was going to say and I have included some of his comments in the final draft. Some of Katie Ashford’s words when I first drafted my thoughts about liberal education in May 2014 have also been included.


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