I may be a traditionalist, but I’m not a neo-liberal

I wasn’t going to write a piece inspired by Rob Peal’s new book Progressively Worse: there are already several excellent reviews online (see here and here). It was when I read Debra Kidd’s post, however, that I decided to write something. In her post, she associates educational traditionalists with a neo-liberal political agenda. While there certainly are people who support both these things, I want to challenge the idea that the two have to be associated.

What does it mean to be a traditionalist? I can begin by saying what I am not. I am not an elitist. I am committed to the idea of a comprehensive education, if that means that all children, regardless of prior attainment or social class, have an entitlement – a fundamental right – to gain knowledge of the world in which we live. Michael Young and his associates make this case powerfully: knowledge is emancipatory. Some forms of knowledge – as captured in the academic disciplines such as mathematics, chemistry and history – have more explanatory power than others, and therefore it makes sense to teach our children those subjects. Children from the least affluent backgrounds, whose parents cannot or do not help them distinguish between everyday experience and powerful knowledge, are those in the greatest need of history, mathematics, chemistry and literature.

I have always shied away from using the term ‘progressive’ in my posts due to the emotions it raises, but I now find I must. Old Andrew’s definition in his Foreword to Peal’s book is strong on this, identifying characteristics of this ideology such as a denigration of teacher talk, a focus on skills over knowledge and a view that the (intellectual and personal) authority of a teacher in a classroom is to be played down, or even removed.

From my perspective, history education in this country has suffered as a consequence of these beliefs. The idea that subject boundaries can be collapsed in a curriculum – such as in the RSA’s Opening Minds curriculum – allowed some schools to stop teaching history as a discrete discipline; historical knowledge lost its coherence in such curricula and became little chunks with which children could play while focusing on so-called generic competences. The denigration of teacher talk – particularly through Ofsted – removed from history teachers one of the most powerful tools for conveying stories about the past. In exams, the idea that description is a ‘low order skill’ led to a loss of narrative in history, ironic given that the construction of narrative is one of the most complex things a historian does. The introduction of the ‘new history’ in the 1970s placed the emphasis on the skills of the historian, though the kinds of source analysis that pupils were increasingly subjected to in the 1980s and 1990s bore little resemblance to anything that I would call history. In classrooms, the emphasis on ‘finding things out for themselves’ became an inefficient if not antithetical approach to gaining knowledge of the past. I am satisfied that on all of these points Peal is correct. While there never was a ‘golden age’ in which all children received fantastic history teaching (see Cannadine’s book The Right Kind of History), their education about the past was not furthered in the latter half of the twentieth century by the ideas of progressive education.

But, as with all histories, there are other narratives at work here. Damaging as progressive education has been for history teaching, there is another force which has proved just as detrimental: that of neo-liberalism. I am no expert in politics or economics but my sense is that neo-liberalism can best be described, in the words of John Gray, as using ‘the state to reshape social institutions on the model of the market.’

How has this affected history teaching? Giving schools more freedoms might be a neo-liberal policy, and it sounds great: but what about when headteachers exercise that freedom to reduce the amount of provision of history a child receives at school? This is currently happening at hundreds of academies across the country where history is being reduced to two years, or even one year, of compulsory study. League tables are a cornerstone of neo-liberal education policy, yet these actively encourage school managers and teachers to ‘game’ the system. One has only to look at the various ‘exam training courses’ that history teachers go on to see just how deep teaching to the test – rather than the domain – runs through our education system. Teachers are being encouraged to drill their pupils in exam technique from a younger and younger age rather than teach complicated stories about the past. It is a travesty that in many schools – maybe even the majority – children are being discouraged or even prevented from taking history to GCSE by senior managers where it is suspected that those children will not get a Grade C. A poverty of low expectations? Or an obvious response to a system of incentives in an increasingly technocratic education system? A market in the examination system might bring with it the benefits of competition, but what about when we want fundamental reforms to the GCSE History so that is has a broader and richer focus on the past? Will exam boards be willing to risk losing their customers by designing courses that differ significantly from those that went before, particularly if those courses are much harder? This can all I think be summed up by the tension the current government faces between wanting to have a better curriculum whilst at the same time giving schools more opportunities not to follow it.

I do not find it a contradiction to value a traditional education while rejecting neo-liberalism.  I do not see how we can improve the way history – or any other academic subject – is taught in schools unless both are challenged. So where does this leave me? I’m a traditionalist – yes – in the sense that I support a curriculum based around academic subjects with a central role for the teacher in teaching. But being a traditionalist does not make me a neo-liberal. I can quite happily sustain a belief in the value of a traditional education while rejecting a neo-liberal approach to our education system. If that makes me that most hopeless of oxymorons, a liberal paternalist, then so be it.





10 Comments on I may be a traditionalist, but I’m not a neo-liberal

  1. I received a copy of Robert Peal’s book yesterday and have only just had a chance to glance over it so far. It’s presenting, from the teacher’s level, more or less the same case Frank Furedi put forward a couple of years ago in his survey of decline in the English education system, ‘Wasted’. Interestingly, although Robert Peal (oh lucky man to have such a name – there was a William Pitt when I was at Oxford!) is on the Right, Frank Furedi is on the Left, but they seem to say much the same thing and they trace the problem to much the same root causes. It’s a great shame – though probably inevitable – that the debate has been hung on left-wing/right-wing hooks, because it should never have been so. I cannot imagine anyone who would be spinning more furiously in their graves at the decline of respect for wide and accurate subject knowledge than the founders of Ruskin College, Oxford or the WEA.

    In terms of the decline of respect for knowledge, which is something I have encountered more times than I can count, I think the problem is compounded by weaknesses in university education, which can leave graduates with very eclectic collections of subject knowledge and expertise, but little overall pattern. The mantra in HE is “research-led teaching; teaching-led research”, which is why you end up with university courses which look like an academic pick’n’mix, because everyone is teaching to their own particular specialism and very few want to step outside it even by a few years. So you will indeed have the lecturer who will cover France in the 1870s and 1880s but would claim to know nothing at all about France in the 1910s (so it doesn’t get taught). I think if we are going to address the question of the importance of coherent and extensive subject knowledge, we need to look at teachers’ own knowledge, and that in turn means looking long and hard at university courses.

    My own feeling is that the time is ripe for a major curriculum initiative in history, a sort of narrative and knowledge equivalent of the old Schools Council Project, bringing together some of the thinking we’ve all been looking at and producing the sort of teaching course and materials that would reflect it, while keeping the party politics firmly outside.

  2. An important distinction I think. I have long been wresting against so much of my initial teacher training and finding myself ever wending towards a traditionalist stance on education, history teaching and classroom management. It is not that I think there is nothing in progressive ideas – there are times when I want students to find something out for themselves. I am however aware that if I let them do this, firstly it will take much longer than me delivering the content; and secondly they will need significant reinforcing afterwards to overcome any misconceptions they developed. There is definitely a place for this approach, and also for an approach which develops second order concepts, but you are quite right in saying that teaching of subject has been made far too generic over the last 2 decades.

    I also think this plays into an interesting issue of the school system overall. Namely if students are ‘not academic’ is it fair to keep pushing them through academic pursuits like history. I think in this case I hold that ‘fairness’ means giving children access to the world of the academic whatever their background or previous ability. Some children reach intellectual maturity much later than others and I genuinely believe the role of teachers is to make the nuances of their subject accessible to students – this is where the real interest lies. I can remember receiving an odd (but lovely) card from a sixth former thanking me for being one of the only teachers “who really loves their subject” and for “making me see some of that too.” Quite strange in a way that we have so many people teaching who clearly do not show this love for subject which is so crucial to getting students involved. I have always maintained, usually when challenged over teaching so much Middle Ages content, there are no “boring” topics in history, only bad angles to approach from.

    However there is still the pressing issue of those students who still cannot access the academic curriculum later. The comprehensive system does little to cater for them. Should we go back to a split between Sec Mod and Grammar? No, because this split pupils too young and because not enough resources were put into Sec Moderns. Do I think that there are better ways of schooling than having everyone do the same, yes. How we do that is difficult, but if a child wants to take a vocational route and that route is taught by experts just as an academic route would be, and as long as the student has a choice in this, I think this could be quite powerful. The key is that vocational should match the very best of academic in terms of engagement with a particular craft – generic employability skills just cheat students out of real understanding. In my ideal world we would also give students access to educational vouchers for 18 years of free education, the last 5 of which might be redeemed later in life. Oh and close the private schools….

    Right – this has turned into quite a ramble. I will finish with your comment on the exam reforms. There is a huge amount of concern that “dumbing down” has made exams less relevant to the subject domains. Just yesterday I saw an AQA advert which said “Our GCSE paper has 20% less reading than the competition” not exactly a ringing endorsement of academia! Ironically, as they become easier they pile more pressure on students to get top grades. A B grade at GCSE is the new pass grade and an A Level below a C is pointless in this brave new world. I have never before had so many students drop out at the end of courses because there is too much pressure to succeed, so they have reduced their load. Last week a student dropped history having completed the whole course because the exam pressure of 4 subjects was too much. This simply cannot be healthy.

    So yes, I agree with you. I am increasingly a traditionalist in education, getting ever more worried by the lack of clear direction in the system, but a neo-liberal I am not!

  3. I think this is a really important disctinction that is often ignored/missed in the Twitter and blog-spats of late. To assume that any teacher who favours talk, for example, is somehow conservative, capitalised or not, misses a crucial point that has been buzzing around at the back of my head ever since I trained – if we are in favour of comprehensive education with the power to transform then we also have to be in favour of in-depth subject knowledge.

    Sean (above) thinks this might be because of an incoherent university system. Perhaps he’s right, though I think that lack of descriptive narrative which you mention is more problematic.

    There’s also a counter to the ‘I’m a traditionalist, but not a neo-liberal’, which might be, ‘I’m a progressive, but not loony-left/anarchist (insert your own description here)’. Like Alex I sometimes want students to find things out on their own. I have used Thinking History activities very successfully to create hypotheses for our ‘big enquiry questions’. Like Alex I know that I’ll need to plan my resources very thoroughly in order to ensure that interpretations are valid and stand up to rigorous cross-examination.

    However, what I won’t accept is the any-interpretation-is-valid approach. No it is not. And this is where I think teacher training is to blame – that young teachers are led to promote a well-meaning but ultimately dangerous culture whereby any opinion is valid. I see this far too often in humanities subjects, especially history. There seems to be a feeling that knowledge isn’t engaging or fun, and that arranging these grand, orchestral lessons will keep the wolves from the door. But that isn’t the case! Children love to KNOW things. And the more they know the more they can explain and challenge their world – is that conservative? No.

    So I’m also a traditionalist, but that doesn’t make me boring, didactic or a neo-liberal.

    • “However, what I won’t accept is the any-interpretation-is-valid approach. No it is not. And this is where I think teacher training is to blame – that young teachers are led to promote a well-meaning but ultimately dangerous culture whereby any opinion is valid. ”

      Completely agree with this point. It took me over 2 years of teaching to realise that this was neither helpful nor interesting to students. We rob them of our own subject expertise if we don’t help them to understand subjects better and you are right in saying that this is absolutlely crucial to a comprehensive education.

      Where I suppose I differ from the Grand Narrative brigade is in suggesting that there is only one valid narrative – however I think these need to be explored through valid historical debate and discussion, rather than the FOFO type approach we have seen for the last decade or more. If I see one more lesson where “historical interpretations” means “what is your opinion of….” I think I will go mad!

    • Interestingly, what Debra’s and Michael’s posts, and Ed’s, Alex’s and Toby’s helpful replies here all have in common, is the danger of labelling – that is, a certain kind of labelling that is based on sweeping generalisation or that lumps a pedagogic practice with an ideology or lumps an epistemology with a pedagogy. I, too, am a firm traditionalist in all the senses advocated here, but I don’t demonise all group work (only bad group work, of which there is plenty about, i.e. group work that isn’t an efficient use of curriculum time and which doesn’t lead to secure knowledge) and, like most history teachers I know, I want children to be secure in historical narratives both so that they have the powerful knowledge that gives them access to all educated discourse AND so that they can generate counter-narratives and challenge others in informed, rigorous ways.

      For these reasons, I have only one quibble with Toby’s response:

      “And this is where I think teacher training is to blame – that young teachers are led to promote a well-meaning but ultimately dangerous culture whereby any opinion is valid.”

      Well, maybe that was your experience, and perhaps it is the experience of others, and if so, I’m very sad to hear it. But it not only isn’t the culture promoted in the history PGCE that I lead, it is a culture that I (and the team of mentors with whom I co-lead) explicitly and directly challenge, and have done for 15 years. I also know of other ITE courses where such sloppiness would be challenged instantly, both on both historical and on pedagogical grounds.

      So, please, in the interests of continuing to strengthen these important debates, can we all help one another to keep on trying to avoid blanket assertions about what teacher training does and doesn’t do? I know we all slip up sometimes – an understandable strength of feeling easily lets us slide into hyperbole – but our historical training, at least, should guard us against the really big howlers.

      • A fair point – I think there is worrying evidence of this approach in some ITE institutions however. Of course, there is even more evidence of it in many of the schools involved in SD training of students

      • Christine, ‘blame’ was the wrong word to use.

        Obviously my limited experience differs to yours, and I would hope that what I see is not the norm. I was lucky enough to have Alan Kelly as my PGCE leader and he certainly would not have stood for such sloppiness.

        However, I do see a huge variation in expectations. Whether that’s due to the university’s training for the subject tutors or students, or sometimes low or misguided expectations of a previous school is open to debate.

        I also don’t mind whether a student teacher comes in with neo-prog-post-trad view of history teaching as long as they’re reflective and open to change if and when necessary.

      • Thanks Toby and Alex. Yes, I agree, there are definitely big problems in many settings. The trainees I really worry about are those in programmes that are increasingly generic – i.e. they focus on generic pedagogy. The focus on subject knowledge, disciplinary thinking, reading subject scholarship, subject pedagogy… is slim. Trainees need to read widely in historical scholarship throughout their training and (in my view) they need to work and talk with strong communities of experienced history teachers who do likewise. They need to be mentored by strong history teachers and to learn from their rigorous practice. They need to connect both with the history and the history education community – its research (especially curricular research written by history teachers) and history teacher debates. But there are ITE courses where none of this happens!

        Worse than that, where trainees are observed, judged or trained by non-historians, sometimes the important and difficult business of training pupils in historical argument or the study of contrasting historical interpretations (which, done properly, needs a LOT of knowledge), gets confused with generic pedagogic notions such as constructivism or muddled with Ofsted-derived notions about looking for ‘engagement’ or being ‘student-led’. Then everything gets horribly confused. It is in contexts such as this, where getting pupils ‘to share their own opinions’ is deemed the most important thing, that instead of assessing trainees for the rigorous quality of student debate, its knowledge foundations or its grasp of the principles of substantiated argument, trainees are praised *just* for getting pupils talking a lot and contributing. But the quality of talk might be very very poor, and even taking pupils backwards. Trainees need help and support in deciding what constitutes rigorous historical writing and talk, and how to build this steadily and painstakingly, even in the most challenging pupils.

        So, I agree, the overall picture in ITE is very varied, and I worry about the many new programmes springing up where fine subject teachers are not in the driving seat, where no one is creating a subject-driven, knowledge-rich course that takes the subject discipline as its chief gold standard.

  4. edpodesta67 // 29 April 2014 at 09:43 // Reply

    Only time to be brief here, but I distinctly recall being reminded, whilst studying History PGCE, that whilst there was no ‘one’ right answer to many historical questions, there were an infinite number of ‘wrong’ answers to each historical question.

    What irks me about many commentators is that they seek to sort teachers into boxes, each of which is a pastiche of ‘traditionalist’ and ‘progressive’ approaches.

    I’ve met hundreds of teachers who focus on the needs of their students, but who would not let their children devise a curriculum. I myself will teach using group work, but I don’t believe for a moment that it is the only condition under which children learn. I respect my students as human beings, and seek to understand the world from their point of view, but I am in control of my classroom, where my rules and values are those that dictate the atmosphere. I teach my students to do things with history, but realise that they need to know lots of history in order to do anything with it. I value knowledge, it’s my stock in trade, and I want children to be able to use it. I have never seen a ‘discovery’ learning history lesson where students are left merely to explore an issue without guidance, in any school that I have visited or worked in. Neither have I ever seen a history lesson in which a teacher has talked continuously, delivering knowledge without obvious activity on the part of the students.

    As a brief read of the comments above, of Ofsted reports, of Teaching History, of twitter feeds, blogs will show, teacher-led student-active lessons are often the norm in history classrooms up and down the country. If asked, I believe that many of those teachers, like me would resent being asked to put themselves in a ‘progressive’ or ‘traditionalist’ box.

    I’m really fed up of being called names, especially by those who don’t have the experience to do so – which is why I liked Debra’s post so much 🙂

You can offer your thoughts here:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: