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Category Archive • Education theory
December 02, 2004

I see that in my report from the day before yesterday of that VRH refreshment meeting, I really left out the most important thing I learned, which is that reading is not the sole purpose of VRH. Paul The Boss even said that he somewhat regretted the title of the organisation, Volunteer Reading Help, because it missed out other important things, like children just talking, with an adult, and just becoming more confident. Once they see the basic point of words, and can say them confidently, then the next step, of reading them and writing them, comes far easier.

Paul The Boss even used a word I had never heard before – "oracy" – which apparently he heard Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Schools Stephen Twigg use in a speech about a year ago. Paul The Boss suspected Stephen Twigg of having made the word up, or that the word was at least something made up by New Labour. But he liked it anyway, or he wouldn't have mentioned it.

So, is oracy a real word? You be the judge. I have the strong impression that we have the education academics to thank for it, and that before 1990 it definitely wasn't a word. But one thing's for sure, which is that Stephen Twigg did not make it up.

However, the fact that someone like Paul The Boss finds this word useful makes me respect it, despite its likely recent academic origins. What Paul The Boss has in mind is a general confidence with words, spoken as well as written, although whether the academics mean exactly that by it I don't know. And we VRH volunteers are there not just to get our charges reading, but, if that fails, simply to get them talking. Confident in speaking with an adult. Used to the idea that words can communicate, that communication, indeed, is possible.

Associated with this is an ethic of voluntariness. We aren't there to compel these kids to do anything they don't want to do. If they want to play games, fine, that's what we do. If only because playing games does often involve reading in various ways, as was the case today when Boy Two and I played a card game that involved him reading the names of soccer players and their countries.

What separates all this from the aimless chaos of a badly run primary school is that each child has our undivided attention for the duration of the session. Just sitting and doing nothing and getting bored, it is absolutely not.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:37 PM
Category: Brian's brilliant teaching careerEducation theory
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November 10, 2004
Lego – in the middle of the intersecting circles

I think a lot of the success of Lego is that when you read a report like this you don't only think: blatant marketing.

SINGAPORE : Southeast Asia's first Lego education centre opened in Singapore on Thursday.

It features not only a galore of Lego blocks to teach basic physical science to pre-schoolers, but also a Mindstorms programme – which allows students to build robots - using the principles of mechanics.

The centre will cater to students from pre-school to teens and has tied up with local education provider Crestar to offer seven different curriculums ranging from design to physics.

So far, an estimated 800 students have signed up for classes which begin next month.

Four more centres are expected to be launched by 2007. – CAN

It is blatant marketing. Get them young, build brand loyalty, get them addicted. Yet despite all the obvious commercial calculation, this is not like getting kids addicted to potato crisps or hamburgers or rap music videos. Here, you feel, is a case where commerce and education, as claimed, really do go hand in hand. They really might be teaching some real design and some real physics here.

CirclesS.gifAs I ruminate upon education, I find myself attracted by a topographical model of education involving intersecting circles, like those diagrams they use to explain how the different colours come together to make TV work. There are three circles. These denote: the interests of the child, the interests of the child's parents, the interests of the child's teachers. When a proposed item of education occupies none of the circles, no worries, it just doesn't happen. When it occupies only one of the circles, there is conflict. When it occupies two, the third party tends to get bullied into line. The child has to do it, the parents have to put up with it, or a teacher is found who will provide it. Best is when all three areas overlap.

This Lego thing has the feel of being in all three circles. Your first reaction might be: this is only in a completely irrelevent fourth circle occupied by those dubious individuals who hover on the outside of education looking to further their own interests but to make nothing but trouble for children, parents and teachers. Junk food salesmen, sex fiends, etc. But here is a hoverer who has parachuted himself right into the middle of the intersecting circles.

Which of course makes it very clever marketing.


I found this Lego picture here.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:20 PM
Category: Education theoryThe private sector
[5] [0]
August 02, 2004
Now memorise this!

Arts & Letters Daily links to this eloquent defence of the educational tradition of the rote learning of great poetry and great literature, by Michael Knox Beran.

Read, mark, learn and inwardly digest.

Which is a quotation of some sort (the Bible?), for I too had the kind of education that MKB is praising, and is lamenting the passing of. But I don't remember what I am quoting. However, that is not the point. The point is to get a sense of what fine language and fine thinking feels like. Then, you can do it yourself for as long as you live. Remembering all the chapter and verse numbers is good, but not absolutely essential. Not having been exposed to any of this kind of thing at all is, says MKB, a grave disability.

Can rote learning be reconciled with the voluntary principle in education? Why not? If you have great performers performing these poems and speeches, and inspiring pupils to perform along with them, then, as President Michael Douglas says of his daughter's lessons in American constitutional history in The American President, what's not to enjoy? (The daughter, alas, is not enjoying.)

Seriously, if, as MKB argues, learning by heart comes naturally to young children, then why do you need to force them to do it? All you need is the argument about whether it is a good use of their time, and whether they should be encouraged or dissuaded from thus learning.

Tragically, most of the educational arguments of our time are between (a) people who think children should be compelled to do good and educationally valuable things, and (b) people who don't think that good and educationally valuable things are good and educationally valuable.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:37 PM
Category: Education theory
[2] [1]
April 07, 2004
Michel Thomas on children being prison inmates – on the importance of relaxation for learning – on how everyone can learn

… and the nearest thing to a philosophy of education to be found in this book about Michel Thomas is the following:

'We handicap and hobble and put a heavy lid on the immense innate learning potential of the human mind that is in everyone. Education has become a conspiracy between parents and governments to control children. Every child is institutionalised at the age of five or six and sentenced to at least ten years' hard time until so-called graduation. Children serve time by law, and I call it a conspiracy because parents consent to it and the government enforces it. So children become prison inmates – except unlike prison inmates they do not have a voice with which to protest, or advocates to protect their rights. Children don't have anybody. They have to serve their time unconditionally. After such an experience many naturally feel they have had enough of education and learning. They have no wish to continue. School's over and done with – learning's finished. From childhood on we are conditioned to associate learning with tension, effort, concentration, study. In essence, learning equals pain. The educational experience has been a painful one, and has capped the immense learning potential of each child. This is a tragedy.'

Conventional teaching, Michel argues, closes rather than opens the mind and cripples even the best students, blocking the subconscious because of the tension it creates. 'Why not make use of the full potential of the human mind, by combining the conscious and subconscious? And you can only tap into that if someone is in a relaxed and pleasant frame of mind. It is important to eliminate anxiety and tension. Then and only then is a person completely receptive to learning. People do not want to expose themselves to more pain, or face what they think are their own inadequacies. Yet these are the very people who become most excited when they see that they can absorb and progress quickly and easily.'

Michel's approach overcomes the most stubborn cases, and he insists there is no such thing as someone being unable to learn. He emphatically rejects the idea that a person has to have a gift, or 'ear', to be able to learn a language. 'Have you ever met anyone, however stupid, who cannot speak their own language? Everyone is gifted. Anyone who can speak his native tongue has already proved his gift for language and can learn another.'

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:52 AM
Category: Education theory
[1] [0]
April 05, 2004
The Economist on the economics of home schooling

I missed this when it was first posted. It's called "A Free Market in Education", so it's right up my street. It's about the economics of home schooling, and the fact that the Economist is impressed by said economics.

One homeschool family started a homeschool retail business in 1994, and spent the last 10 years learning how to successfully serve other families that teach their own children at home. Nathan and Lindley Rachal have decided to take what they learned as homeschool entrepreneurs to serve other homeschool businesses. They have founded the homeschool books and business association, with a trade journal, "The Connection," and a website at www.hsbba.com. Their mission is to make sure that other homeschool families don't have to "reinvent the wheel" as they step out to bring new products to market.

Free minds and free markets have made America great, and homeschoolers are well on their way to establishing a lasting tradition of entrepreneurship in education. As more families choose homeschooling and more homeschoolers serve this market, the "Economist" story will not be the last on homeschool capitalism. Next stop, Wall Street Journal?


To be a bit more serious than that, one of the fatal defects of the "progressive" tradition in education has been its besottedness with "democracy" - used pretty much as a code word for socialism, state control, etc. – and its hostility to "capitalism". And the problem with that is that this means favouring freedom in education, but opposing it everywhere else, because "capitalism" is what free people do when they are left to get on with doing what they want with what is theirs. The marriage of progressive educational thinking with entrepreneurial and pro-capitalist thinking is thus a switch of great historic significance.

The fun really starts when entrepreneurial thinking starts to penetrate the lives and thoughts of children, with a continuum being established between the education of themselves that they boss at their schools (or whatever) and the larger enteprises they later boss in the big wide world out there. At the moment, you pretty much have to drop out of education to become any sort of serious entrepreneur.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:43 PM
Category: Economics of education Education theory
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November 10, 2003
The Moral Maze does egalitarian education

Email from Tim Haas:

If you didn't catch it, you might find this past week's "Moral Maze" on Radio 4 of interest: www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/religion/moralmaze/moralmaze.shtml

The putative topic was whether Diane Abbott was a hypocrite, but it really turned out to be a fairly good examination of the agenda of the egalitarian education movement and whether public school parents (the term "independent schools" is making some inroads over there, I see) are buying better education or just privilege. It seems like the British left really can't let go of class rhetoric.

Thanks. I'm not very clever at making these sound file thingies work, and wasn't able to get this one going. Plus, it rather looks as if this particular link won't last, for educational purposes, as you can only access the latest programme. Still, useful to a few, I hope.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:38 PM
Category: Education theory
[0] [0]
October 20, 2003
Education as peacock feathers

A week ago today, Friedrich Blowhard posted a piece about how women's fashion is maybe an exercise in sexual self-presentation. The point being, it's hard, and it's complicated. If you can excel at being fashionable, you are one formidable woman.

The tricky part with signaling is that it is easier, evolutionarily speaking, to cook up a fake signal of reproductive fitness than it is to actually deliver the goods. I think you’ll understand the pressure to “cheat” when you consider that reproductive fitness isn’t an absolute quality, but a relative one. Reproductive fitness is graded on a curve, and only a certain percentage of the population will get an “A” no matter how well everyone does on the final.

So the natural tendency among individuals evaluating such signals is to look for ones that are hard to fake. In 1975 Amotz Zahavi realized that traits that actually inflicted a penalty or a handicap to the signaler fit this bill perfectly. He used this handicap theory to explain why peacocks grew such enormous tails, despite the fact that this reduced their odds of survival: the fact that the peacocks are still around and functioning despite their grotesque tails signals to peahens that these guys were extremely reproductively fit. Such a signal can’t be faked; if you’ve got such a tail then it will handicap your individual survival whether or not you’ve got the genetic resources to bear up under this burden, so it's insane to fake it.

And this is how fashion fits into that:

How a woman dresses, for it to work both as a successful signal and a handicap in Mr. Zahavi’s sense, has to go beyond the fairly utilitarian matter of successful self-presentation. That's too easy. As a result, the notion of fashion has evolved, which forces a woman to look good while simultaneously not violating a rapidly changing set of arbitrary rules. With fashion in the game, a woman not only sends out face and figure cues – which are fairly easy to fake – but she also signals her knowledge of the rules of fashion and her strategies for coping with them – which requires a set of inputs that are much harder to fake. With fashion layered into the mix, men can now tell something about a woman's alertness to social conventions and the world around her, about her problem-solving skills and about the financial resources she brings to the game.

I've often thought that the dowdy, school swat girls, with blue but rather laddered stockings, often under-rate the sheer formidableness of the girls who look great but don't make any great thing of being clever. Doing make-up that good, every day, has long seemed to me to suggest managerial skills and qualities of persistence that bode well for the careers of the ladies in question. And I long ago learned to distinguish between the desperate desire to say clever things all the time and actually being clever. (Time and again, in public and in private, the smartest answer is: no comment.) So I agree with Friedrich about fashion. And I think the world does also, given how it gives quite important jobs to ex-glamour-pusses while shunning many of the brainy girls. They don't just get to be posh wives. They get to be posh all sorts of things.

But that isn't the education point I want to make here. The point of Friedrich's piece is that he's trying to explain why fashion is the weird thing it is, and in particular how very distinct it is from mere female beauty. And my central point is that I think this same theory, of self-sacrificial display, applies also to education, which is a similarly weird and arbitrary process, and which constantly enrages us all by being so very different from what would seem sensible and economical. What I'm saying is, to repeat the title I've chosen for this posting: education as peacock feathers. I think this explains a hell of a lot.

It explains, for instance, why education goes on for so insanely long, and for longer and longer as more and more people can afford to do it for longer and longer. People who two hundred years ago would have been half-way through their working careers are now still engaging in economically ruinous – yet also economically rational if you look at the incentives facing the individuals concerned – competitive display behaviours, which are of no direct creative benefit to anyone or anything. What the hell is going on? Peacock feathers. That's what's going on. Is literary post-modernism arbitrary and absurd? Latin verse composition? Total immersion in obsolete computer languages? Archaeology? Keynesian economics? … Peacock feathers.

You are proving with your long history of education and exam-passing, BA-ing and PhD-ing, that you have what it takes to do a real job, of equal laboriousness and of equal meaninglessness. An instantaneous test of mere cleverness wouldn't do it. Mere mental facility is not the point.

Education as peacock feathers also suggests something else about education, especially of the higher sort. It is, if not an inherently masculine preoccupation, at the very least skewed towards the male temperament and masculine preoccupations. Not so long ago it was the exclusive preserve of men, many of them unmarried and childless. Now, it is a way for men to prove their manliness, and to get mates as well as jobs.

You think I'm kidding? Do you think all this is sheer male chauvinist piggery? Well put it this way. Not so long ago I saw a romantic comedy on the TV where the man had done all the usual self-presentational things to the woman, and all was going swimmingly. They liked the look of each other and were doing each other nice little favours. He had collected her dry cleaning. She was smiling at him above and beyond the call of social duty.

But the relationship only got seriously going when the woman's best friend at work had the man's CV faxed over to their office. (I don't know how they were able to do this, but somehow they were.) Only after the women had together scrutinised the man's CV and declared that also to be satisfactory did the relationship get seriously under way. Peacock feathers!

And I think education as peacock feathers may explain something else, which is the deeply held belief, certainly in Europe, which says that a total free market in education is a bad idea.

Free market ideologists like me rage away against nationalised education, and say: surely total educational freedom would make everything educational get done far, far better. But what if education being "done better" would simply mean longer, heavier, more elaborate, more ornate, more expensive, more ridiculous, more time-consuming … peacock feathers?

The point here being that education is felt to be one of those things where the interests of the individual peacock (so to speak) work against the interests of the peacock species as a whole. The individual wants to get ahead in the queue. But the species as a whole does not want all its individuals merely fighting each other inside one huge queue. It wants productive work to get done.

Other examples of individual freedom being regarded as collectively self-defeating are: suburbs, where everyone's attempt to live in the countryside destroys the countryside, and (the closely related matter of) individual car ownership, where everyone's ownership of a car destroys everyone's mobility by getting everyone stuck in traffic jams.

And how about also: medicine? If everyone bought all that they wanted of that, there'd be no end to the damn thing. Old people would consume all the wealth of the world on complicated machines to prolong their pointless old ages. Can't have that.

So, it's better for education to be quick and messy, and not too wealth-consuming and above all not too time-consuming a thing, otherwise it might get completely out of hand and overwhelm our entire society. Keep it nationalised, for all but the very rich, who can be allowed to waste their money on this foolishness without general economic melt-down. For the rest, education must be nasty, brutish and short, and it must remain so if social catastrophe is not to ensue.

Similarly, if the very rich want to waste their money on stately homes in the country, expensive cars and idiotic medical nonsense, that's okay. The countryside survives, and they don't buy enough Rolls Royces to clog up the roads. If they all impoverish themselves, fine, others can have a turn being the rich.

I think all that is wrong, but I surmise that this may be one of the many reasons why nationalised education is so infuriatingly popular.

This has been a long and rambling post. Apologies. Not long ago I wrote a piece, somewhere (here), about how the interestingness of an idea is inversely proportional to the fluency with which it is expressed, and I rather think this law may just have engulfed me. I like to think that I am threatened by it quite often.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:29 PM
Category: Education theory
[3] [1]
October 16, 2003
Educator Alice

Alice Bachini sums up (title: "Whew") a recent burst of educational theorising thus:

I just finished a series of rants on an autonomous-learning kind of theme, over on my blog.

Education invites commenters to write about memorable learning incidents in their lives. Education addendum expresses some of the frustrations we unschoolers have to put up with when dealing with the ignorant and uninitiated. Avril Lavigne makes some points about growing good musical ideas. Then (ie above) there is some other stuff. And then there is a review of Avril Lavigne, who I think sums up a lot of what TCS parenting, life and learning are about, and why it matters.

And now I am having a bath.

Which the general opinion of her friends and associates is: she earned. Also at the other TCS blog or whatever it's called this week, Emma joins in the argument.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:25 PM
Category: Education theory
[0] [0]
August 21, 2003
Karl Popper and the defeat of boredom

Keeping up with Alice, who is now back from her camping trip, took me here, and to this article by Sarah Fitz-Claridge, entitled The Education of Karl Popper.

In about 1917, Popper came to a clear realisation about school: "... we were wasting our time shockingly, even though our teachers were well-educated and tried hard to make the schools the best in the world. That much of their teaching was boring in the extreme – hours and hours of hopeless torture – was not new to me. (They immunised me: never since have I suffered from boredom. In school one was liable to be found out if one thought of something unconnected with the lesson: one was compelled to attend. Later on, when a lecturer was boring, one could entertain oneself with one's own thoughts.)" On returning to school after an illness of over two months Popper was shocked to find that his class had hardly made any progress, so, at the age of sixteen, he decided to leave school. He enrolled at the University of Vienna, where the cost of enrolling was nominal and every student could attend any lecture course. "Few of us thought seriously of careers – there were none ... We studied not for a career but for the sake of studying. We studied; and we discussed politics."

At university Popper initially attended lectures in many different subjects, but he soon dropped all subjects other than maths and theoretical physics. He thought that in mathematics he would learn something about standards of truth. He had no ambition to become a mathematician, and says: "If I thought of a future, I dreamt of one day founding a school in which young people could learn without boredom, and would be stimulated to pose problems and discuss them; a school in which no unwanted answers to unasked questions would have to be listened to; in which one did not study for the sake of passing examinations."

I think that one of the best ways to write about education is to write about the educational experiences and opinions of people who are deservedly famous, or for that matter deservedly infamous.

I've had a pre-occupying day, so I've let Sarah Fitz-Claridge do most of my thinking and writing along these lines today. It's a formula I expect to use again many times in the future, and not necessarily with writings already available on the internet in their entirety. Linking to aready internetted stuff is useful, but it is also faintly parasitical. All I've really said here is: have a read of this. But that is something.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:35 PM
Category: Education theoryHigher educationMaths
[1] [0]
August 19, 2003
And a mastery of differential calculus will turn you into Hitler

Follow the rumour from her, to him, to this:

I'm sick of all this whining following good A-level results about what second-rate subjects students choose. What did the older generation learn with their supposedly breathtaking mastery of long division etc? They learnt to attack and exploit the poor all over the world, abandon the vulnerable of their own society, and generally not give a damn about anything apart from the statistics of "progress".

Maybe with our more humanities-based curriculum, with its emphasis on finding something for everyone, we might learn that numbers are to serve people, and not the other way around.

Says Peter Briffa:

There's one for the root causes brigade: long division turns you into a rampaging capitalist.

If only it were that easy.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:20 PM
Category: Education theory
[5] [0]
June 20, 2003
John Dewey – what's he all about?

This morning (early in the morning) I did some broadcasting. Not so you'd notice. It won't emerge onto the airwaves for several months. But once again, after I'd written that up, I find that my education blogging time is limited. Plus I have a headache. Maybe I should get a sick-note, scan it in and stick it up here.

So instead of the usual ranting and pontificating, I have a question. John Dewey. For years I've been trying to get a handle on this guy.

Can anyone suggest (links to) good articles about this guy that won't take me half a day to read?

I find – oh dear, here comes some more educational pontification – that if I want to learn of the significance of some thinker, I learn more and more quickly if I read stuff that is strongly partisan, in favour and against. Maybe it's that I come from two families of lawyers. I find that if I want the truth about something I stage an argument about it, and then judge. If you see what I mean. (That was the kind of programme I was involved in this morning also. The BBC has the adversarial principle built into its DNA, or at any rate the Radio 4, local radio, discussion bits that I get involved in.)

The Christians disapprove, right? And is that just the creationists? Or do other Christians have other objections? And how about all those conservatives who associate Dewey with falling standards? Which they do, yes?

My friend Chris Tame, who is a Randian, can't mention the name of Dewey without spitting metaphorical blood. What's might that be about?

It's not that there isn't enough stuff. It's that there is, if anything, too much. I don't know where to start.


This looks as if it might be helpful. As might this.

Guidance anybody? Thanks in advance.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:35 PM
Category: Education theory
[5] [0]
May 15, 2003
Why the Trads are ruled by the Progs

Education "experts", i.e. people with strong opinions about education for people other than themselves and their own children, can be divided roughly into "progressives" and "traditionalists", Progs and Trads. Progs rule the roost. Trads probably speak for the average punter far more accurately, yet the Trads seem to get nowhere. Why is this?

Speculation: Progs were people who were bored at school. Trads were more likely to have been confused, or else to have been teatering on the edge of confusion and grateful for whatever shafts of clarity they were offered. Progs knew what was going on at school; they just had trouble paying attention to it. Progs would have preferred to decide their own syllabus, and would have had no difficulty doing that. After all, they basically understood most of the stuff that was being chucked at them by their teachers, and would have been able to embroider, subtract and add to that syllabus with ease and confidence.

Progs dominate education "theory", ever since education theory set itself in motion in the form of teacher training colleges and university education departments and in the form of books about education. And why do they do that? Because they basically did well at school, in among being bored by it. Come the exams, they knew what to do.

Meanwhile, Trads dominate the general public. The public mostly wants teachers to teach, and to teach the 3Rs, to obedient lines of well-behaved kids in desks. The public was mostly confused at school, and they know that if they had managed to be less confused either by better teachers or by them paying more attention or both, their lives would have gone better. Insofar as they too were bored, their cure for school boredom is for kids to shape up the way they should have, and to be made to shape up, and for teachers to teach better, and above all to teach more clearly and accurately.

But of course, they were confused when exam time came around, and so they never got to be education experts.

The above speculation was provoked by reading Chris Woodhead's book Class War. Woodhead was a classic bored at school, but nevertheless successful at school Prog. But as he immersed himself in the problems of the Confused Classes, he moved over to being a Trad.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:55 PM
Category: Education theory
[1] [0]
May 09, 2003
Freedom and obedience - Montessori meets Victor Davis Hanson

It's funny how ideas often come at you in pairs, by which I mean that the exact same idea often comes at you from two wildly different places. What probably really happens is that idea first hits you, from the first place it hits you from and you find it very striking, and that makes you hyper-observant if your environment presents the same idea to you again at any time soon.

This has just happened to me, with an idea about how freedom relates to obedience.

First it was Maria Montessori, whom I was writing about not long ago. Forgive me if I don't supply the link - I'm on holiday and this is a strange computer. Anyway, what the linkless Maria Montessori said, among many other things, that one of the ways in which the freedom of children is expressed is in the form of chossing to accept the authority of the child's teacher. Choosing to obey, and obeying all the more obediently on account of the authority having been freely chosen. Well, you can see how that idea would be wide open to manipulation, for example by later generations of fascists in Maria Montessori's Italy. Nevertheless, I think the lady was on to someething.

Second, I have just encountered pretty much the exact same idea from Victor Davis Hanson, whose book Why The West Has Won: Carnage and Culture from Salamis to Vietnam is my current holiday reading. Hanson makes the same connection between the political and economic freedoms enjoyed (relatively speaking) by the soldiers of the West's armies and the ferocity with which, during a battle they take it upon themselves to obey orders and thereby to cooperate effectively. Hanson is adamant that the in-step formations of the West's soldiers, with their uncanny ability to move this way and that like the dancers in a mass ballet, has given the West a decisive edge in its many battles with non-Western enemies. The idea that freedom and the more complete acceptance of authority might go together is, if you think about it, the exact same idea as Montessori's.

In an earlier posting here not long ago, I speculated that a lot of war-making and war-preparing might be good for education, and not just in a bad way. This idea, endorsed by on the one hand the "progressive" educational theorist and on the other hand the military historian, reinforces that surmise.

The point to get is that the on-the-day obedience of a Western army goes hand in hand with the right of all ranks to have their say about the rights and wrongs of military policy before and after the battle. The Montessori/Hanson claim is that these two habits reinforce each other. And they stand at the complete opposite end of the spectrum from the world of someone like the "great king" Xerxes (loser of Salamis despite having his Greek opponents being massively outnumbered). In that world, anyone who ever queries the wisdom of the great king's military dispositions risks instant execution without trial. So guess how much serious discussion of alternative military plans takes place in places run by the likes of Xerxes.

Come the battle, the army of Xerxes doesn't act nearly as cohesively as its quarrelsome Western enemy. The Greeks fight like cats and dogs amongst themselves before Salamis, and after Salamis. But on the day, they act as one, and pull off the sort of triumph that Xerxes' underlings could never contrive.

If I was using a more congenial computer, I might also here supply a link to that piece I did about Sean Gabb, the Anglo-Saxon adversarialist, teaching the consensual ladies of Asia.

I can imagine lots of people growling throughout the above. Freedom? Obedience? Make up your mind, man. You'll be telling us that freedom equals slavery next. But think of the enormous number of professional soldiers who, while doing their soldiering, think of their orders as like water in a desert, but who as soon as they stop their soldiering are as loud as anyone in their protestations of devotion to the idea of freedom. What if these people have a point, and what if the point they have is the same point that Montessori and Hanson are both making?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:00 PM
Category: Education theory
[2] [0]
May 01, 2003
Some recommended reading

I am in a rush, partly because this evening I will be visiting some home educators (stay tuned), and partly because I have just spent some scarce (today) BedBlogging time reading an article called Why Education Is So Difficult and Contentious by Kieran Egan of Simon Fraser University (acrobat only I'm afraid). It was publilshed in 2001 but nothing in it dates.

In my opinion, drawing from one of the distinctions that he himself uses, Egan is something of a pedant, but disguised quite well as a man of wisdom, by which I mean that he writes much more clearly and entertainingly than most of us would expect from a seriously pedantic pedant. However, since what Egan pendantifies (I know, not a real word) is a nice, clear, three-tier history of educational thought – socialisation, an academic curriculum, personal development – and since, as I say, he writes clearly and entertainingly, I found my attention held, despite the piece running to 19 pages.

In my opinion Egan is a typical nationalised industry drudge, whose brain is really quite severely warped by the fact that the thinks that education has to be a nationalised industry. He's a drudge with a smile on his face, but a drudge nevertheless. So no wonder he regards the problems of education as insoluble, and the conflicts between his three core ideas as irreconcilable and doomed to cause permanent failure. It's just the same in nationalised hatpin factories, where the conflicting demands placed on The Hatpin are likewise considered beyond the wit of man to solve, despite the infinity of effort that "we" have expended, are expending, and are doomed for ever more to expend upon solving the problem.

For instance, Egan says that the idea of systematic bodies of knowledge conflicts with the idea of potential-development. Progressives versus Trads, in other words. If they can't settle their differences in a century, they never will, says Egan. One or both of these ideas must be wrong.

Both are right, and need no modification. They just need to be done right.

"Progressives" are (a) often horribly bad at actually developing potential (briefly: the prisons with pretty wallpaper syndrome) and (b) full of crap about how the world works, that is to say, foisting a syllabus on their charges that is full of nonsense. Plus (c) some of the progressives actually disbelieve in the very idea of a body of knowledge that's out there and gettable, so no wonder their little charges remain ignorant. They have to reinvent and/or rediscover everything for themselves, poor things, which is idiotic.

Although most Trads in my experience do actually believe in developing potential, they are typically unable to distinguish between the claim that something obscure and not overwhelmingly useful is true (which it usually is when they say it) with the claim that therefore children should all be made to learn it and can't be allowed to decide for themselves whether or not they'll bother with it.

Being sensible instead of silly about such things does not require that one or both of the twin ideas of sensible syllabuses or developing pupil potential should be dumped. They just aren't yet being done right by very many people.

Egan has, we learn, written a book in which he claims that he has started to solve many of "insoluble" problems caused by these three "flawed" ideas, by reworking the ideas. And maybe his new and improved ideas are better (not so very different from mine in other words) and I'm misjudging the man. Meanwhile, as a bird's eye view of the dilemmas of education – as a survey of the questions if no answer on the answer side – I recommend his article.

Here endeth the lesson.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:51 PM
Category: Education theory
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April 22, 2003

No less then one email flooded in noting my absence yesterday. An American. The mistake I made was that what with the Monday after Easter being a bank holiday, which may not register over there, I was in Sunday mode, and only realised this morning my omission. Apologies to all who had their day ruined by being without their fix of Brian rambling educationally.

However, I have not been ignoring education. Last Friday evening I was given dinner by friends, one of whom is a Montessori teacher. And they also lent me a book on the subject.

Until now, Maria Montessori (1870-1952) has really only been a name. I expect to have more to say about matters Montessorian over the weeks, months and years to come, but in the meantime I note how very influencial this lady's ideas have surely been.

A core Montessori notion is that you mustn't expect to start children straight away with academic 3Rs type teaching. They must instead be allowed to explore their physical environment and to develop their various senses, of sight, sound, touch, and so on. And now that stuff is so cheap and ubiquitous, almost every child in the West now possesses a cornucopia of toys and educational objects of all imaginable shapes and sizes. Meanwhile, children's TV shows have encouraged children to explore their physical capacities and senses by playing with all the useless yets perfectly safe and clean detritus of the modern food and toiletry packaging industry. Here in Britain, the TV show Blue Peter has become the object of endless good natured and nostalgic teasing for its various schemes to convert toilet rolls and fruit juice cartons into houses, dolls and spaceships. I'm guessing that Montessori had a lot of influence on all this kind of learning by playing.

There was, you might say, an interlude between a world in which children lived a rural life surrounded by the stuff of nature, and our own world where stuff also abounds. Unlucky children during this transitional period would sometimes spend their entire early lives in unstimulating places like orphanages, with no stuff to play with and effectively not doing anything, and as a result they grew up permanently stunted. A key Montessori insight is that by "playing" of this sort (although she actually called it "working"), often very repetitively, the child is developing its own brain. Children, said Montessori, have short periods of intense focus on particular topics, so to speak, and if their eagerness to explore colour, for example, meets no response in the form of a colourful environment with colourful stuff in it, their lives are rendered permanently less colourful. (As Montessori realised, a child who grows up without hearing language spoken can never later get to grips with it.)

The book I've been reading is called Montessori: A Modern Approach, by Paula Polk Lillard, and it was first published as long ago as 1972. However, I am already very struck by how many of Montessori's ideas chime in with the latest fashions in evolutionary psychology. I'm also currently reading Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate, and the intellectual overlap is remarkable.

I haven't got to the bit where I learn about Montessori's views about reading and writing, but I'm looking forward to it very much.

Once again, my apologies for the blip in service here. I wish I could be sure that it will be the last. I will leave it at promising that such interruptions will be rare.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:32 PM
Category: Education theory
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