The idea that pupils should be in charge of their own learning is at the core of "child-centred" education. This doctrine dismisses centuries of traditional pedagogy as authoritarian, and claims such methods are actually counter-productive as they kill a child's desire to learn. For decades, progressive educators have claimed that educational standards will only improve once we free our children from the oppressive rule of schoolmasters. As the doyen of British progressive education A.S. Neill stated in 1962, "A child is innately wise and realistic. If left to himself without adult supervision of any kind, he will develop as far as he is capable of developing."
Until the 1960s child-centred learning remained the preserve of a handful of middle-class eccentrics. The 1967 Plowden Report on primary schools changed all of this, placing their philosophy in the mainstream of British education. Bridget Plowden was a patrician liberal and the wife of a top civil servant who, so the story goes, was commissioned to write the report after charming the education minister Sir Edward Boyle at a dinner party. Her report set out a vision of the ideal primary school, which "lays special stress on individual discovery, on first-hand experience and on opportunities for creative work. It insists that . . . work and play are not opposite but complementary."
Nowadays, child-centred learning is an article of faith in the state sector. Whenever I question it at work I am met with bemusement at best, but usually righteous anger. Its principles pervade everything a new teacher hears about "best practice": avoid chalk-and-talk; don't point out a child's mistakes (it will harm his self-esteem); never teach anything pupils may find boring; and never, on any account, organise the pupils' desks in rows. Islands of desks where the pupils can "group learn" are dogmatically promoted.
The faults in this pedagogical outlook are normally obvious to those who have not been through the indoctrination of teacher training. By moving the onus of authority from the teacher to the child, we neglect our responsibility for teaching, which is to prepare a child for the adult world. If a child directs his own learning, his potential for advancing from the condition of childhood is unsurprisingly diminished.
As Keynes might well have written, practical teachers who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence are usually the slaves of some defunct educationist. The great tragedy of this process is that once released from the ivory tower and transferred to the classroom level, child-centred education becomes less a philosophy, and more an excuse for slack, ineffective teaching. If a teacher does not have a responsibility to direct the pupils' learning, then this is a ready justification for the directionless, chaotic atmosphere in so many of our nation's classrooms. On the ground, child-centred learning is an ideology of low expectations.
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