Romanticism in the British classroom

I suggested earlier this week that the Romantic view of childhood and education was alive and flourishing in British schools. Several people, including a couple of teachers disagreed. Let's have a look at how teaching takes place in schools in this country and see if it can provide a clue about this question. This is of relevance to home educators here, because they often see their pedagogy as being diametrically opposed to that of schools. It is not: it is in fact almost identical, both being the product of so-called 'progressive education' which invaded our schools like a plague from the 1960s onwards.

One of the first things that an objective observer notices about British classrooms is that the teachers have a positive aversion actually to teaching their pupils. They speak disparagingly of this activity as 'chalk and talk'. It is regarded in almost all schools as being a bad thing and the infallible sign of the inferior and unimaginative teacher. Instead, at both primary and secondary level, they try to get children to discover the information in the curriculum for themselves. This is done not from books, to which there is the same kind of deep seated aversion as is felt for teaching itself, but by activities designed to allow the kids to stumble upon the facts by themselves. This is an extraordinarily inefficient way of learning, as study after study has amply demonstrated.

I have in front of me a report called, Schooling as preparation for Life and Work in Britain and Switzerland. It was written by Helvia Bierhoff and although it was published fifteen years ago, its observations are still spot on. In science lessons, the whole idea in British schools is for the children to find out for themselves with minimal guidance from the teacher. Many teachers hesitate to interfere for fear of strangling the 'holy curiosity' of their pupils. The result is that children often go away with a distorted or wholly mistaken of what they have observed. An example given in the report was that of a group of children in a science lesson who believed that the vigorous froth produced by a tube of sugar and yeast at boiling point indicated that the enzymes worked best at that temperature. The teacher did not like to correct this ludicrous mistake explicitly and the bell for the end of the lesson went before he could, by means of a Socratic Dialogue, show them their error. This is typical of teaching today in schools in this country.

In Switzerland, on the other hand, the teacher demonstrated the experiment beforehand and told the pupils precisely what was happening. He then explained the scientific principles involved. Only then did the pupils undertake their own experiments, once they were in full possession of the facts. Not unnaturally, the scientific understanding of Swiss pupils was found to be far in advance of those in this country.

This sort of 'teaching' takes place at every stage of the pupil's life in this country. Want a history class to learn about the Black Death? Don't tell them about it! Instead, get them to write a story telling you how they would feel if they were medieval peasants whose best friend had just died of the Black death. Studying geography? Don't teach them about the principle exports of Pakistan or its rivers and mountains. Rather, tell them that Ali works a twelve hour day for 50p a day. Ask them how that would make them feel. Every subject thus moves from being an objective discipline to a vague, subjective mush. Little wonder that our schoolchildren learn less than those of many other countries. The progressive/Romantic educational methods are directly to blame.

The rejection of books in our schools is not, as one person commenting here seemed to think, a consequence of economics. The dislike of books and reading was an integral part of Rousseau's ideas on education: he talked of books as 'the curse of childhood'. These idea were taken up by his two stooges Pestalozzi and Froebel and still have a stranglehold on educational theory in the UK. Many children go through secondary school without even touching a book. They are not expected to read an entire book, even for GCSE. Instead, they are given photocopied extracts. They only ever need to be familiar with Chapter 2, say or Scene II, Act 1. Why bother with the whole novel or play? There are no maths books or textbooks for any other subject either in most schools. Is this to save money? It is unlikely. Ask yourself which would cost more: a new system of electronic whiteboards and laptops for every pupil, together with an IT contract from BECTA, or a few books? For a tiny fraction of what the average school spends on IT, all the children could be provided with books. But that would look so old fashioned and be in any case opposed to the prevailing ideology. Who wants a bunch of smelly, germy old books , when we could have a new IT system? At one time, books were at the heart of education. Now they have been squeezed out completely in many cases.

It was for these ideological reasons among others, including of course religion and the undesirability of peer pressure, that I decided not to send my young daughter to school. I can however assure those who have kept their children at home because they prefer to pursue a child centred and progressive education, that our schools today are still hotbeds of such ideas and that they would receive just as 'progressive' an education there as in the home of the most dedicated autonomous educator!