#EducationFest No.2: More root than trunk

This is the second in a series of posts on the Festival of Education at Wellington College.

After Wilshaw, the first proper session of my day was Tom Sherrington. Of the distracting number of blogs I follow (I have to ration myself to 20 minutes at a time otherwise nothing else would ever get done, but it’s a strain because there’s so many people out there writing interesting stuff) Tom’s blog is the one I find myself most in tune with, most of the time. I thought I would feel the same way about his session on how traditional and progressive teaching approaches tend to blend together in most of the good teaching sequences we see in real classrooms, but I left just a little dissatisfied. He gave plenty of examples, not all from the selective setting where he is currently headteacher. He quite rightly identified electric circuits as a good example of when the teacher’s explanation and direction is crucial to childrens’ learning, and how good subject knowledge is critical in doing this well. Just as appropriately he talked about situations like A-Level investigations where giving children the opportunity to direct their own learning allows them to develop their interest in the subject and flourish intellectually. His description of how, in his school, Art and D&T were tightly controlled and very teacher-led at KS3 so children gained the skills required for later, much more self-directed, projects at KS4, was a good example of how learners can progress quite quickly from novice to a much more expert level where more open learning is appropriate. He presented his tree model of effective teaching; the more progressive roots providing important nourishment and skills and a highly structured, traditional trunk providing rigourous knowledge. The point being that both are needed if glorious foliage is to be developed. However, as a physicist, perhaps Tom had forgotten that one of the most prominent misconceptions in biology is that the bulk of a plant comes from the soil when, in fact, it comes mainly from the air. I found the whole session a bit like that. I didn’t find fault with his thesis, but I didn’t find his talk totally convincing either. Maybe too much anecdote and not enough evidence. Maybe just a lot of good material but not carefully enough marshalled. But it wasn’t just the tree that reminded me of a physicist talking about biology that is essentially correct but just not quite learned well-enough to avoid some ragged edges. Maybe it was all roots and no trunk. He didn’t need to convince me, but I don’t think this session will have convinced any of the people that he does need to convince.

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3 thoughts on “#EducationFest No.2: More root than trunk

  1. Why would he screw around with the tree metaphor like that? In the most important aspects of tree-ness, conventional instruction (which I think is a more apt term than “traditional”) is the root. First, it provides an anchor. There is no sense in which progressive education anchors anything. It is about as un-anchor-like as anything I can think of in the current educational enterprise. It is also a trunk, providing support for the vast structure. To think in what sense a one-generation-deep collection of ad-hoc ideas might support the vast structure of a 21st century education, which has developed from Greek and Asian roots over a period of 2000 years … is simply nonsense. So conventional education forms the root and trunk of this tree. The branches may be captured by different aspects of our system. In one sense these may be thought of as the disciplines — the 7 classical Liberal Arts, with some other, more modern ones tacked on — both old and new branch growth, like most biological trees. The sturdy, bulky main branches and the new, green, twiggy ones (where, it is true, the fruit tends to grow — but which depend critically for nourishment on the former). So this leaves … the leaves. That’s what “progressive education” represents. This is quite apt, for it is where all the impressive show and bluster is, the bright flourish that makes observers ooh and ahh, as the winds of change blow through them and they flutter in the breeze for their brief time of glory. Then the great wheels of time turn, the cycle comes to completion, the leaves fall, the tree goes through a consolidation phase…and one day, new leaves show up.

    It’s as easy as 2+2, and frankly I never metaphor I didn’t like.

  2. Pingback: #EducationFest No.4: How will we know? | docendo discimus

  3. Pingback: #EducationFest No.1: Play up, play up, and play the game | docendo discimus

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