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Michael Gove’s planned national curriculum is designed to renew teaching as a vocation

2 April 2013

2 April 2013

Michael Gove’s planned national curriculum, heavily influenced by American reformer E.D. Hirsch, came under strong attack over the weekend. Critics claim that it will de-professionalise teachers. NUT activists and their allies insist that teachers will have to abandon the ideas that were prevalent when they were trained, and teach in a different way, which risks alienating and demoralising them.

There are good reasons for being concerned about the de-professionalisation of teachers, but Hirsch’s curriculum for the UK is not one of them. On the contrary, his curriculum, found in books such as What Your Year 3 Child Needs to Know, is designed to encourage the renewal of teaching as a vocation. The UK publisher, Civitas, accepts that teachers have been de-professionalised in the last decade or so, and is promoting Hirsch’s books as a solution.

Two main forces have contributed to the de-professionalisation of teaching: the politicisation of performance targets; and the impact of falsely named ‘progressive’ education that assigns a diminished role to teachers. Assessment is useful as a guide to teachers, parents and pupils about how much young people have learnt. However, assessment became dysfunctional in the last few years because it began to be used as a measure of the success or failure of the ruling political party. Instead of being an aid to the classroom teacher, Key Stage 2 tests and GCSEs became measures of the government’s achievements. Now it is generally accepted that testing regimes became corrupted. An official report in June 2011, by Lord Bew, recognised that narrow ‘drilling’ had become common, squeezing out real learning and denying children a broad education. Lesson time in primary schools was used to rehearse answers instead of deepening and extending knowledge. The focus on results in English and maths meant that other subjects were neglected.

Critics of Hirsch have not realised that his work is an alternative to rehearsal and drilling, not an extension of it. Their mistake has been to seize upon a superficial resemblance between learning facts to acquire fluency or as an aid to applying skills, and the rehearsal of ‘answers without understanding’ purely for the sake of passing a test. Cramming for exams is not the same as equipping the memory with useful information that will aid future understanding. Learning times tables, for example, involves memorisation in order to increase fluency in the use of numbers. It is about acquiring knowledge to make analysis and critical thinking possible.

The second cause of de-professionalisation has been the continued influence of academic theories from the 1970s and earlier that were hostile to teaching. Many young teachers are still being taught that lessons should be 10 per cent the teacher and 90 per cent the children. Teachers find themselves being criticised for being ‘too didactic’, which is a bit like criticising a doctor for being ‘too medical’. There were two sources for these attitudes: child development theories and political theories that saw teaching as no more than a kind of authoritarianism.

Following work in the 1930s by Swiss academic, Jean Piaget, academics in the 1960s such as Laurence Kohlberg described children as undergoing stages of development. The stages can be simplified into three groups: the pre-conventional, the conventional, and the post-conventional. The conventional stage involves outward compliance with school rules without real moral conviction. It was common to argue that, if you instruct children, you freeze them at the conventional stage and prevent them moving to the post-conventional stage, when they would be moral agents in their own right. Parents and teachers, in this view, were obstacles to development. If you want children to learn about society, let them play games and construct moral principles for themselves. Don’t give them lectures on right and wrong.

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This work had the authority of social science behind it and was reinforced by writers such as Ivan Illich. In books such as Deschooling Society (1971), he argued that formal schooling was harmful: ‘Pupils … are simply instructed by an authoritarian teaching regime and, to be successful, must conform to its rules. Real learning, however, is not the result of instruction … most learning requires no teacher.’

Carl Rogers, author of Freedom to Learn (1969), was perhaps the most influential of all. Teaching was ‘all based upon a distrust of the student’. The attitude of teachers was: ‘Don’t trust him to follow his own leads; guide him; tell him what to do; tell him what he should think; tell him what he should learn’. Consequently, argued Rogers, ‘at the very age when he should be developing adult characteristics of choice and decision making … he is, instead, regimented and shoved into a curriculum, whether it fits him or not.’

Not everyone accepted the arguments of these writers, but they lie behind the approach that turns the teacher into a facilitator rather than the custodian of useful knowledge and skills that can be passed on.

We now know that theories which devalue the teacher are especially harmful to children from poor backgrounds.  The bottom quarter of young people, whether defined by their school attainment, or by their parents’ income, are badly served by ‘progressive’ methods. For example, about 25 per cent of children each year have not been achieving Level 4 at age 11 in both English and maths, which means they are ill-equipped to benefit from secondary education.

Hirsch’s core knowledge curriculum is designed so that every child from every background can benefit. It represents what children from all social groups can be taught. And it is based on the belief that teaching is a vocation. Teachers are custodians of the best interests of children. Their role is not to facilitate learning defined by the children themselves as interesting or relevant to their lives. The teacher’s calling is to open up new possibilities that children simply don’t know about. If they come from homes with lots of books and computers and educated parents, they may get enough help to overcome the inadequacies of a bad school, but if they rely almost entirely on the school for knowledge and skills, they will fall behind and stay there.

A well-run school, even when children are drawn primarily from poor backgrounds, can make a vast difference. That is why the curriculum matters. Content-rich education offers a broad curriculum for every child. Expectations are high. They are not just taught the three Rs but a wide array of subjects to prepare for modern life. Out of six chapters in Hirsch’s UK primary school curriculum, one is on the visual arts and one on music.

Trade union activists assume that to be a professional is be autonomous, essentially free to do as you wish. But teaching is not only a vocation, which implies dedication to bringing out the best in every child, it also has much in common with the ‘learned professions’, occupations that are constantly open to the discoveries of science or experience. No true professional would resent having to abandon ideas taught in early training. The self-conception of the teacher as a learned professional is of someone constantly developing a better understanding of how best to teach and what to teach. It’s normal to be asked to do things differently because earlier ideas have been discredited by practical experience or the sciences. This idea of the learned professional is closely linked to autonomy. But it does not mean never having to change your ways unless you choose to; it means being guided by an independent search for the truth and being willing to change pre-conceptions when necessary.

True professionals do not object to applying their craft in a different way when new methods have been shown to be more effective. Teachers in New York, for example, have begun to alter their techniques after carefully evaluating two approaches to teaching English. Hirsch’s work was recently subject to a rigorous trial in New York. For three years from 2008 to 2011, a pilot program tracked the reading ability of 1,000 pupils at 20 New York City schools. They were followed from age 5 until age 8. Half of the schools used a curriculum designed by Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Foundation and the other 10 mainly used a programme called ‘balanced literacy’. The study found that 8 year-olds who were taught to read using the Core Knowledge programme scored significantly higher on reading comprehension tests. For each of the three years, Core Knowledge students had greater 12-month gains than their peers in the other ten schools. The biggest gap opened up in the first year of the programme.

Under the ‘balanced literacy’ approach, used by seven of the ten comparison schools, children were encouraged to develop a love of reading by choosing books of interest to them. Teachers avoided direct instruction of children and focused on overseeing them while they worked. The Core Knowledge programme was based on reading non-fiction books. Children also read fiction, but they were expected to read about topics such as the weather, the solar system, ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia and to be able to discuss each subject in class. The ‘balanced literacy’ method, which claimed to encourage creativity, did not help children to improve their ability to read a text, understand what it said, and explain what they had learnt in their own words.

Teachers who are concerned about de-professionalisation during the last few years have a strong case, but knowledge-rich education is not their enemy. It offers the best hope for the renewal of the ideal of teaching as one of the highest callings.

David Green is Director of Civitas, which is publishing E.D. Hirsch’s primary school curriculum in the UK.


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Show comments
  • http://twitter.com/LePrecis 3arn0wl

    Is knowledge important? YES derrr.

    Are assessments important? Yes, but they should only be important for students. They should not be a measure of success (and reward) of the school.

    Is is right that teachers ensure that students are well prepared for examinations? Derrr.

    Teaching to the test? Well, as such importance is placed on results, WHAT DO PEOPLE EXPECT? And incidentally, a narrowly drawn NC document results in narrow exam syllabi, and therefore a narrower education.

    Is knowledge the only thing that matters? No. Understanding and applying the knowledge and developing skills is just as important.

    What’s the teacher’s role – fount of all knowledge or facilitator of learning? Both and more! Politicians, the media, and education ‘gurus’ need to stop thinking that teachers are idiots, and offer moronic advice – teachers know that they should employ a variety of teaching techniques.

    Are teachers closed to new ways of doing things? They’re right to be sceptical – if something works well, why change? However, good teachers always reflect on their practice to try to improve it.

    Do teachers know best? Often yes! They’re on the front line. They know the students they’re working with: the background; the history… And techniques that’ve been really successful in one place might not work or work as well in another.

    What’s the school’s role? To show the student that there’s a world of possibility.

    And teaching IS all about the student, shtupid!

  • Mr Arthur Cook

    Oh dear – as ill informed as it is badly written.
    Yet more “desk research” based on what “Charlie told me about his kids’ school at the water cooler”.
    I challenge you. Go out into schools and ask teachers who have been trained in the last 10 years “What theories formed the core of your training to teach?”. You find that the vast majority can name none. This will be because their training is based on the “Teachers’ Standards” which are defined by government.
    The article again, lazily pushes the fiction, of white haired Marxist university professors “lecturing” an assembled mass of young impressionable new teachers. In fact university staff working in initial teacher education are NOT “professors” but people who have spent many years as teachers themselves, as heads of department, as members of school leadership teams and as advisory teachers. They spend their time working with new teachers to enable them to:
    Plan lessons;
    Work with pupils with Special Educational Needs
    Carry out assessment
    Keep good order in the classroom
    etc.
    Please stop pumping uninformed clap trap!

  • Fergus Pickering

    But who the f*ck cares what the teaching unions think about anything.

  • Youbian

    I was shocked to discover that my niece in Australia, diagnosed as a gifted child, had never been taught her times tables at 13! Just as bad there it seems.

    • Russell

      not surprising when you hear the Labour Welsh wonder and her monosyllabic tones. as thick as plank.

      • Fergus Pickering

        Wrong. She’s not thick. She’s wicked and a liar.

    • Fergus Pickering

      Every bit as bad. You should read an excellent right wing monthly called Quadrant to find out what the situation there is like. Their finances are OK. Jhn Howard saw to that, but the social fabric is in the hands of the marxist hordes and their universities are diabolical.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100004981542519 Tom Tom

        Their finances are disastrous – Gillard saw to that

        • Fergus Pickering

          I believe you. But I still get a very good rate from the great Quadrant (which means the great redneck Les Murray

    • Mr Arthur Cook

      If she is “gifted” she would probably have been very disengaged by spending time chanting “times tables”.

  • Russell

    This story of de-professionalism and target led culture with teachers more concerned about pay, pensions and ‘bonuses for meeting targets’ sounds all too familiar with the NHS, another huge failing of labour.
    The labour party and Unions must never be allowed to be in charge of essential public services again, and in the case of the NHS Ministers should be in court/jail.

    • telemachus

      The target culture has been worse since 2010

      • Russell

        Certainly the targets of having a bonfire of Quangos and reducing public sector spending has not materialised.
        There are still thousands of ‘Pilgrims’ being paid by taxpayers as teachers/Nurses/Policemen (and women)/Firemen (and women)/civil servants/town hall staff but carrying out Trade Union activities!

        • telemachus

          The ultimate insult
          The ultimate target has been cooked up by the coalition for teachers
          It is called payment by results and it is the final nail in the coffin of teachers professionalism

          • Nicholas chuzzlewit

            I cannot see what is wrong with rewarding teachers who do a good job and firing those teachers who are incompetent. Surely, encouraging and rewarding effective teachers while weeding out the dross will have a positive effect on teaching standards and provide the pupils with a more rewarding educational experience. This is normal practice in private sector schools and is one of the reasons why they comprehensively out-perform the public sector. They have the added advantage of minimal interference from the imbecelic teaching unions.

            • telemachus

              Agree we should weed out dross but to simply pay on target achievement distorts the teaching process

              • Colonel Mustard

                If you agree that dross should be weeded out why are you still posting comments here?

                • telemachus

                  Worth clicking on your name and seeing your posts which are exclusively a rant against reasonable views without a single original idea
                  Pity

                • Colonel Mustard

                  Conflating socialist views with “reasonable” views again. Infinitely debatable and the lessons of history do not tend to support your belief.

                  Are your “ideas” original, let alone “reasonable”? They seem to emanate mostly from Labour party scripts circulated to their online rebuttal trolls when they are not engaged in the obsessive stalking and harassment of those you cannot control.

                • telemachus

                  I read not labour material but I know what is right

            • Mr Arthur Cook

              Is this why it is a well known phenomena in the teaching profession that bad classroom teachers are usually the first to be promoted to “school leadership” where they can do less damage sitting in an office …..and then going into other teachers’ lessons and judging them!!

              • Nicholas chuzzlewit

                Whereas, if it were possible to dismiss poor performers they could not be redeployed and thus cause damage in other ways.

            • Gareth

              Because the best schools are those where teachers work collaboratively, sharing the best ideas, creating effective whole-school systems, and supporting each other in developing pedagogical practice. A narrowly applied system where teachers are paid based on the results their classes attain will take attention away from these. It will further incentivise teaching to the test.

              • Nicholas chuzzlewit

                I agree with your point and believe that the measurement of ‘effectiveness’ purely by exam results is too narrow an aproach. That said, good results are one factor in determining effectiveness just as bad results are a factor in determining ineffectiveness. I would like to see a school environment where the Headteacher/CEO, after considering numerous factors such as collaboration, teamwork, adaptability to change, enthusiasm and yes, results, is able to reward those teachers who consistently employ all of these qualities and to fire those teachers who manifestly do not. I accept, as few educationalists seem to, that you can rarely contrive a perfect solution. Nevertheless, I think the system that I am advocating provides a platform for improving standards and reducing the ever widening gulf between private and state education.

  • Austin Barry

    Might be a good idea, particularly in London, to subordinate esoteric considerations of the national curriculum to preparing for the current Tower of Babel to be exacerbated by next year’s advent of our Romanian and Bulgarian EU chums.

    Diane Abbott, for all her eye-rolling hypocrisy, may have had the right idea in moving her son into a private school.

    • anyfool

      She moved them to private school because not only do you get a better education, it also gets them away from the local gangs who do more damage to prospects than the beloved bog standard comprehensives that she condemns her constituents children to.

      • Hellen

        Yet she lives off the backs of those sweaty workers to do so, some representative.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100004981542519 Tom Tom

        Wasn’t London Oratory good enough – the State “Private” School of Choice for Nomenklatura

        • anyfool

          It is for Catholics, as to the Nomenklatura she is not treated as part of the top echelon, more as a useful idiot in the black community.

    • Fergus Pickering

      Well of course she did. Wouldn’t swe all do that if we were as rich as she is?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100004981542519 Tom Tom

    DISCIPLINE. Without Selection and Discipline it is all a waste of time

  • telemachus

    And his beloved frre schools can ignore it

    • Andy

      Free Schools ? BRILLIANT IDEA. Lets have more of them.

      • telemachus

        Why?
        To bash the unions who care about the moulding of children’s minds?
        To drain the last ounce of goodness out of LA schools?

        • Andy

          ‘moulding children’s minds’. God’s Death ! Look what they did to you.

          And I HATE the teaching Unions. Bunch of lefty fascists. So if they are agin it, I’m all for it.

          And actually I would introduce Education Vouchers and privatise schools. That would destroy the scummy teaching unions once and for all.

          • chan chan

            The government have given us laws guarding against monopolies, yet they insist on having one themselves in education. Education Vouchers – yes. Scummy Left wing Fascist teaching unions – yes.

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/Pat-Gorman/841570612 Pat Gorman

            Lefty fascist…not a phrase you hear very often.

        • Russell

          people have seen the moulding of children’s minds with the drop in standards.

          • Andy

            Now leave telemachus alone. He has a moulded mind. Pity it’s a ‘Second’.

            • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100004981542519 Tom Tom

              Telemachus is out of his tiny mind

              • Andy

                Now don’t be cruel. We have Community Care now, and it is difficult enough to make sure he takes his medication.

        • Colonel Mustard

          Do you know the difference between moulding and developing? Or are you being deliberately provocative? Or do you really believe in the political indoctrination of children?

          • Russell

            A model National Socialist akin to a German Corporal a few years back.

            • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100004981542519 Tom Tom

              Austrian Corporal with Iron Cross. Where did you learn History ? Are you thinking of a Coriscan Corporal ?

              • telemachus

                Gefreiter-this is the equivalent of Lance Corporal

          • telemachus

            Both are important
            At its simplest we can take history
            We can develop children’s minds in the methods of recent years by requiring historical enquiry.
            Or we can (and I agree with Gove in this) mould their minds by giving them a framework of dates ensuring broad appreciation of the history of our country.
            I am no teacher and this may seem simplistic but we do need to mould minds to the benefit of society
            The Church has been doing this for centuries

            • Colonel Mustard

              The national socialists of Labour do not “take” history but revise it to fit their political ideology. If they had ever “taken” the history of the English and taught it we would not be where we are but in a better place.

              • telemachus

                I was trying to promote reasonable debate but I see you wish to troll as of habit

                • Colonel Mustard

                  You couldn’t promote reasonable debate if you tried.

                • Andy

                  He should be tried – for High Treason perhaps.

                  *Looks for Black Cap*

              • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100004981542519 Tom Tom

                History is taugfht as Propaganda Bites – Nazis, Slavery – never as themes like Balkans, Communism, what Palmerston called abiding interests

                • telemachus

                  I perceive the one good thing Gove is doing is beginning to put a framework into history to include dates and the nation state
                  Soon we will have a generation that understands the true mongrel nature of our great nation and the need for constant renewal by external blood

            • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100004981542519 Tom Tom

              No it has not. It has failed to do so. It is simply that children are in reviolt against mindless rubbish in schools over the past 40 years

        • Fergus Pickering

          Moulding children’s minds? There oyu have it. And he doesn’t even realise he has let the cat out of the bag.

          • telemachus

            Look son
            Children’s minds are being moulded by my Guardian reading friends daily

            • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100004981542519 Tom Tom

              Yes but the police will get them

              • telemachus

                A teacher friend of my wife told me that she is afraid to comfort a child crying in the playground now for fear of the PC police
                What on earth have we come to?

                • Colonel Mustard

                  You tell us. The politicised PC police are a product of New Labour and your socialist comrades.

                • telemachus

                  The vision to which we all aspire is children being brought up to love and respect others and understand the concept of sharing good fortune
                  If we mould our children in these concepts rather than fear of retribution then we will be a long way down the road to promoting an ideal society

            • Fergus Pickering

              Fortunately the clever ones will reject this brainwashing. I am a Tory. My dear children who make up their own minds are not. Not yet..

              • telemachus

                Was not Toryism the creed of the nineteenth century?
                Our children must look to the future

            • Andy

              I pray for the day when that Fascist rag goes bankrupt.

      • Nicholas chuzzlewit

        Agreed. Better still, let’s open some Grammar schools!

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