September 02, 2003
Separating teaching from tyranny

The article by Jennifer Chew about phonics which I scanned in here last Wednesday is now up at the Telegraph website.

A homeschooling commenter denounced it thus:

More dogma and propaganda from those who have been indoctrinated to think they know who to raise my child better than I do.

I have a recent post on a topic related to this on my blog.

"Infant-school"?

I'm not quite sure which particular "this" the posting on her blog refers to. Is it the phonics, the presumption of teaching superiority, or the "infant school" thing? Not sure.

I don't know if what follows works as any sort of answer to Joanne Davidson's objections, but maybe it does.

It seems to me that two things constantly get lumped together, both by those who favour both, and by those who oppose both, namely very structured and disciplined teaching, and the claim that children should be forced to submit to such teaching against their will.

I'm pretty sure that Jennifer Chew is a more or less unquestioning believer in the necessity of compulsory education, particularly for small children. In this I disagree with her, as does commenter Joanne. But when it comes to the teaching of literacy, I believe that I have a lot to learn from such persons as Jennifer Chew.

Put it this way. Supposing someone asked me which was better for a child: Being "taught" to read and write by those disastrously confusing "look and say" (i.e. look and guess) methods, in purely consenting circumstances, year after year? Or: Being forced to pay attention to someone like Jennifer Chew for a few early months of life? Well, I just hope no one asks. All I can say is I'd try like hell to persuade the "voluntary" teacher to change his or her ways, and if I failed … I'd not be a happy person. At present, most of the damage done by "look and say" is compulsorily inflicted by idiot state teachers, so that question, put to me, has never arisen.

Most of us have good memories of teachers who were (a) tyrants and (b) great teachers. Conflating their justified confidence that they knew how to teach something with a belief that this entitled them to force it down their pupils' throats (the key Bad Idea here) they duly did so. But, we have happy memories of this because to us what counted most was the good teaching, rather than the tyranny, which was irksome but (given the alternatives which probably involved just as much tyranny but less in the way of good teaching) bearable.

Yet good teaching and learning on the one hand, and compulsory teaching and learning on the other hand, are two absolutely different and distinct things. Good teaching may involve orders and obedience and abuse and prodding and poking and generally bossing the pupil around, but it absolutely doesn't have to involve the pupil having no right to switch this process off.

Some of the best teaching I've ever done has started with me saying: "Look, you can stop this at any moment, without explanation. Literally, whenever you want out, you can get out. No problem. But while you stay, you have to at least try to do what I say, or I'll get frustrated and I'll want to stop. Okay? Deal? Yes? Off we go then." And then followed a burst of high pressure teaching that to the naked eye would have been indistinguishable from tyranny. But it was not tyranny. Consent ruled throughout. The right to leave makes all the difference to the pupil's experience, to the pupil's attitude, to pupil morale. It means that despite all appearances to the contrary, the pupil stays in control. (A similar principle is embodied in the idea of an assembly line worker having next to him at all times a button which he can personally push to stop dead the entire assembly line.)

Boys in particular often love this sort of bare knuckle learning ordeal, which at the time is scary, but which afterwards they can feel genuinely proud of having lived through and learned from.

And one of the absolute worst ways to separate teaching from tyranny is to remove all orders, criticism, holding to a standard, attention demanding, prodding or poking, mental or physical, EXCEPT the tyranny of forbidding the victims of this vacuous anarchy from getting the hell out of there. Boys, in particular, will despise such "teaching", and if you attempt it on a gang of them, they will give you the exact punishment you deserve. They will make your life a living hell. That is a one-paragraph summary of all that is wrong with state education in Britain today, and I'll bet also in a hell of a lot of other countries.

I know what you're thinking. How do you persuade children to learn something like reading and writing if they don't want to. The answer is right there in the question. You persuade them. (I call it "selling the culture".) You tell them why you really, really think they ought to learn to read and write, why you are so, so pleased you learned to read and write as early as you did, and then hope that they agree with you. And then you, or someone, teaches them. If they don't agree with you, increase your advertising budget. Spend more time on the persuading. (And before anyone says the opposite, advertising and compulsion are also absolutely different things.)

If you can't think of any good reason why kids should bother with reading and writing and are just taking it on trust from your social superiors, and "selling" reading and writing to your kids on a because-I-say-so basis, then there's your problem right there. You don't actually see the point of it yourself. So why be surprised if your kids don't either? That's the message you've sold them, very persuasively.

So anyway, my question to Joanne is: were you objecting to the compulsion? – in which case I'm with you. Or to the phonics? – in which case I think you are turning your back on some very good stuff, the best stuff on the teaching of literacy that I personally know about.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:15 PM
Category: Boys will be boysBrian's brilliant teaching careerHow to teachLiteracy