Child-Centered Learning Has Let My Pupils Down

The progressive orthodoxy in British education has left one in five school-leavers functionally illiterate. That ethos needs to change

Jane Mitchell was the daughter of a lorry driver. Reflecting on her education during the 1940s, she wrote: “I enjoyed the mental drill and exercise I was put through, even the memorising from our geography book of the principal rivers and promontories of the British Isles . . . It never occurred to me to question the purposes or methods of what we were made to do at school. The stuff was there to be learned, and I enjoyed mopping it up.”

Jane went on to become a classics lecturer at Reading University. It is hard to imagine a child of her background taking so academic a career route today. Then again, it is hard to imagine that such a child today would receive the rigorous education she enjoyed. 

What has changed between then and now? This question has dominated my thoughts since I became a history teacher at one of Britain’s abundant failing state schools. Having been educated in the private sector since the age of seven, I was not ready for the deprivation that confronted me at my new job. However, this was no material deprivation. At around £6,200 a year, average state spending per pupil is not far off the cost of a good private day school. Instead, it was a deprivation of effective teaching methods. 

One in five pupils leaves British secondary schools functionally illiterate. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that a 2010 Confederation of British Industry report found 22 per cent of employers who hired school-leavers were obliged to give them remedial training in literacy. How can such a large proportion of our pupils pass through 11 years of state schooling and still not have the basics of literacy? The answer can be found in a  pedagogical outlook which renounces rigour, embeds underachievement, and dominates the state sector. 

During my teacher training, the university reading list covered the canon of “child-centred” educators. One of the most influential is the Californian academic and self-styled “liberation psychologist” Carl Rogers. In his 1969 work Freedom to Learn he proclaimed, “Traditional teaching is an almost completely futile, wasteful, over-rated function in today’s changing world,” adding, “no one should ever be trying to learn something for which one sees no relevance.”

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. 

During my first week of teaching, I was exposed to the literacy levels of primary school leavers. The experience left me deeply shocked. My department charged me with setting and marking a simple comprehension test for the newly-arrived Year Sevens so that we could place them in sets (a rare example of traditional practice permitted at my school). The tawdry array of papers I received was horrifying. Each of these pupils had received at least six years of primary education, and by my calculation one in three of them was either illiterate, or had illegible handwriting. 

How this state of affairs came to be becomes clearer the more you find out about literacy teaching in primary schools. The much publicised debate over “phonics” versus “whole word” methods sounds arcane, but it is really quite simple. “Phonics” involves teaching pupils to match individual letters to sounds, so that they can combine these sounds to make words. The teaching of phonics requires an orderly, teacher-led classroom, and in its technical approach is often characterised as boring and off-putting for young children. 

For that reason, “whole-word” methods have been promoted for the last half-century as a more child-centred alternative. Instead of didactically instilling an understanding of which letters make which sounds, whole-word teaching encourages pupils to “discover” how to read by first matching words with meanings, then slowly building an understanding of letter-sounds. This method promises that pupils, to a large degree, will teach themselves. As one whole-word apostle claimed, it will lead to the “withering away of the teacher”. 

The most important distinction between the two methods is that one works, and one does not. This has not stopped generations of “progressive educators” from eschewing the teaching of phonics, not because of any perceived ineffectiveness but because its didactic methods are repugnant to their ideology. As a result of these teachers indulging their romantic ideals, 11-year olds arrive at secondary school unable to read and write. 

If we have this much trouble in Britain teaching our own language, it is no wonder foreign-language teaching is so woeful. Eva, a young German teacher at my school, hilariously recalled her bemusement during the British teacher training she received. No language learning should be done through drill or rote, she was told. All should be done through communication and interaction. “I was not told how to teach them,” she told me, “I was told how to play games.” 

Eva had been exposed to the child-centred orthodoxy of “communicative” language teaching. This states that children learn languages best when encouraged to communicate from the start, and pick up vocabulary, grammar and sentence structure through a natural process of osmosis. Rote learning is thus eliminated. At a classroom level, this descends into playing games with the pupils, and if they are lucky, they may remember the odd word. I asked Eva if this is how she picked up her perfect English in the German school system. “No,” she replied, “we were actually taught.” 

Child-centred methods have grossly distorted the teaching of my own subject, history. Instead of teaching pupils about the past, we are encouraged to teach them “source analysis” so that they can construct their own understanding of human history. Such a process sucks all the interest out of history, and as far as I can, I avoid teaching it. My suspicion that pupils actually love to be taught the stuff of history was confirmed by one keen young pupil who, after a lesson, told me, “I like your lessons, sir, you tell us stuff.”

Worse still is the prevalent idea that pupils will find most areas of history “boring”. With enormous condescension masquerading as sympathy, child-centred educators claim that working-class kids can’t “access” many historical topics. As a result, I am forced to teach a GCSE syllabus so inane that I find it shameful to admit: castles, the American West and “medicine through time”. Of all the fascinating and important periods of human history, I am charged with teaching my pupils about cowboys and Indians and the discovery of penicillin. Sadly, this trivial history syllabus is becoming increasingly popular in British secondary schools. 

Fortunately, there is growing pressure from the current government to return British state schools to a more traditional style of history teaching. Last month, the think-tank Politeia published an important report highlighting the deficiencies in British history lessons. Led by a group of historians from the University of Cambridge, the report neatly summed up the absurdity of a “skills based” history curriculum. They claimed that contemporary history teaching suffers from an “excessive emphasis on skills”, as typified by one GCSE exam which consists entirely of source analysis, without the need for any prior historical knowledge. I teach this paper, and I can say that the only people who hate it more than I do are my students. It is boring, aimless, and the very idea that teaching it equips the pupils with worthwhile “skills” is laughable.

When I admit to being a “traditional” teacher, most of my colleagues look at me as if I harbour some perverse desire to be a modern-day incarnation of Thomas Gradgrind. However, the dull memorisation of facts that Dickens caricatured is only an example of traditional teaching done badly. Traditional teaching done well is inspiring, challenging and deeply rewarding for the pupils. 

As a philosophy of teaching, child-centred education has been a disaster. Irrespective of their political outlook, teachers need to return to the idea that education is a conservative endeavour. Applying political principles such as freedom, independence and egalitarianism to the education of children is bound to be a mistake for the simple reason that children are of a pre-political age. They are life’s apprentices, and it is the responsibility of the teacher to prepare them for the privileges of a liberal existence, not to grant them such privileges prematurely. Far from being “child-centred”, classrooms should be pervaded by the assumption that the adult knows what is best for the child. Today’s classrooms lack any confidence in adult authority, in terms of both subject matter and discipline. 

In his Biographia Literaria, Coleridge wrote, “At school I enjoyed the inestimable advantage of a very sensible though at the same time a very severe master” who sent his charges to university as “excellent Latin and Greek scholars, and tolerable Hebraists.” Such an experience did not crush Coleridge’s imagination, but produced one of the most creative minds in the history of English literature. Children today would be so lucky to enjoy the same advantage. Instead, progressive educators deprive them of the discipline and structure they need to become educated adults. These same progressive educators then blame the children’s academic failure on their socio-economic background.

Fifteen years ago Tony Blair dedicated his first term in office to “Education, Education, Education”. There is no doubting the efforts New Labour put into turning around Britain’s schools: by 2008 spending on pupils had risen 55 per cent in real terms on 1997, and thousands of new schools had been built (including my own). 

However, rarely in the field of human endeavour has so much effort been put into being so ineffective. Money is categorically not the answer to our educational problems. You can have all of the computers, interactive white boards and gleaming new buildings you desire, but without good teaching, no real learning will occur. For British education to improve, teachers’ methods, not their resources, will have to change.  

As Mrs Thatcher’s education secretary, Kenneth Baker was charged with solving the disaster in Britain’s classrooms. By his own admission, he did not succeed. In his memoirs, he wrote that the Department of Education “was among those with the strongest in-house ideology. There was a clear 1960s ethos and a very clear agenda which permeated virtually all the civil servants.”

I dearly hope that Michael Gove can succeed where Baker failed. Unlike bad laws, bad ideas are very hard for a minister to reform away. Such thinking will have to be slowly overturned. This process will take far longer than Gove’s stint as Secretary of State but if he successfully sets it on course, our country may yet have a schools system to be proud of. 

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