Wading In

Wading In

I read Toby Young’s piece on ‘The Blob‘ over the weekend. Some of it I agreed with, some of it I didn’t. Here’s a few sections of what could be many in response.


Is it really true that up and down the country children are being denied the knowledge of facts? I have two children, 9 and 7, in a local state primary school and they learn loads of facts. They tell me about Ancient Greece, The Tudors (including dates), bats, owls, eclipses, the physics of sound (fantastic project work with diagrams, models etc) – loads and loads of great facts. Their friends seem to know lots of facts as well. I have to respect the opinions of people like Mr Hunter and Andrew Old who write passionately from a first-hand perspective about the terrible lack of facts in the schools they teach in, but I don’t see it round here. I’m deeply sceptical of surveys that show things like ‘80% of youngsters now think Churchill is a dog in an insurance advert whereas that would never have happened in the 1950s’. Did those previous surveys of 15 year olds who could recite all the kings and queens of England use the same sample?

Of course we should all learn some facts. You can’t do much without them. But you don’t need 13 years of a national curriculum for this. Sites like www.memrise.com have made the learning of many facts easy and, yes, fun! With my 7 year old we spent about 12 hours in total over the Christmas holidays learning all the countries of the world on memrise. He now has the ability to identify and say the names of around 150 countries on a globe – much better knowledge than I ever had. You can also learn hundreds of historical dates, french verbs etc etc through excellent gamified sites online.

I would (seriously) be all in favour of obliging every child in the country to spend about 50-60 hours in their entire school career on memrise to learn every country on the globe and 100 key historical dates. They could do this in class, 1 hour per day over 50-60 days. And yes, in rows of desks, why not? This would be a superb framework for them to go on to learn important things like why countries in the west of Africa have French names, what Oliver Cromwell did that was significant in British history, and so on – all the things I take it progressive educators want to do. But do we need to base a whole schooling around facts taught from the front when you can do it on memrise and other sites in 1/100th or so of the time?

Spelling and Punctuation

Spelling and punctuation are important and should be taught. Again, at our local state primary there are spelling tests every single week and my children, aged 6, were doing parts of speech: noun, adjective, verb, adverb in year 2. I remember spending three months on this (and I think it was the first time in my schooling we looked at them) in my state comprehensive in 1978, aged 14. So is it progressives that have destroyed education over the last 35 years by insisting that 6 year olds now learn these things, or were we, in fact, more progressive 35 years ago? I’m confused on this one.


Everyone should learn arithmetic, times tables and division. I prefer chunking to bus stop long division as it makes more transparent what division is about but I won’t go to war on this. Kids should also learn basic geometry. Beyond that I’m not so sure. Maths changes. Conrad Wolfram has interesting things to say on this. Sure, he has a product to sell, but this is a serious discussion. If the ‘traditional’ educators are so set on ‘traditional maths’ why aren’t we still teaching with slide rules and log tables? Why, indeed, use algebra at all – this was only introduced around 400 years ago. And set theory was called ‘New Math’ by Tom Lehrer in the 1960s. Are we to remove Venn Diagrams now as too ‘progressive’? I don’t think ‘traditional educators’ can be entirely serious about how traditional their maths must be. Time is limited and I would say that in quantitative/logic work, learning how to program: if-then statements, functions, loops etc are all now at least as important as Cartesian geometry and traditional calculus.


The UK is not like China and it is not going to be as far as anyone can see. China did not explode economically in the past 30 years because their children do very well in maths. China exploded because it became the factory of the world. For every British educator hankering after Chinese schooling there are at least four Chinese educators hankering after Western schooling. I meet a lot of them. (Of course, if you do the maths on the number of people, these ratios are perhaps not surprising (!) – but you take the point.) A-levels and IB are growing fast in China. To try to be ‘like China’ in virtually any way at all seems one of the weirdest ambitions of the ‘anti-progressive’ educators.

The UK is not going to return to an industrial or pre-industrial society anytime before mass collapse. Our economy is currently at least 68% service industry and no-one seriously thinks that is going south. As Donald Clarke wittily remarked, rather than ‘a year of coding’ in education, what we really need is ‘a year of sales‘. I honestly don’t know what sort of education this requires – probably some good writing skills, the ability to do a decent level of data analysis and a lot of the dreaded ‘soft skills’. How do we teach these things? I’m not quite sure. But learning lots of facts is only a small part of this and can’t be the principal ambition.

I suggest we are at least more like Finland than China and Finland has a famously progressive education system which is much lauded.


One of the saddest things about the whole current education debate is how ‘progressive’ has become a dirty word. Most Western education of the last, what? 400 years has been progessive by any historic or geographical measure. A quick trip to a madrassa or countless other school environments across the world will show what an extraordinary blessing liberal Western education has been. I confess, I don’t understand being ‘anti-progressive’ in education. I think logically this makes you a ‘regressive’ educator. I know the regressive educators line up against several specific progressive mantra (see e.g here). Fair enough. A lot of these mantras and ideas are a bit daft, but it is a tragedy that progressive is therefore a dirty word and we are reduced to being regressive about education.

Perhaps regressive educators think there is no risk at all of turning our progressive schools into madrassas. Perhaps they’re right. But we should beware lest the current tick-box culture in education (which is, anyway, kind of weird when you think of it –  surely we can’t have that progressive an education system as our current enforcing of endless micro-assessment is completely at odds with progressive education), lest our system of tick-box assessments becomes married to a curriculum of facts. Facts + tick-box assessments sounds perilously close to madrassa-like rote learning to me.

The Blob and lefty nutters

Here are some people who want, variously, more child-centred learning, team project work, less emphasis on facts, more on creativity, more interdiscilinarity – pretty ‘progressive’ stuff: John Seely Brown, John Hagel, Eric Schmidt. The idea that these top business people who work for major multinationals are part of a wooly leftist conspiracy to dumb down education is very odd indeed. I don’t know the politics of these gentlemen, but to lump these sorts of capitalist visionaries with the ‘lefty blob’ does impossible violence to our understanding of these terms. Progressive education has only tenuously little to do with politics or economic positioning. We need to remove this sort of confusion from the discussion.

Classroom Behaviour

Of course kids should behave in class. Of course they should be quiet if they are disturbing others. This isn’t philosophy of education, this is manners. If being progressive means not having manners, then I’m happy to be a regressive educator when it comes to classroom behaviour.

Closing Thoughts

People will never agree about education just as they will never agree about politics, food, or whether pop music really is as good as classical music. Any policy will therefore have to be piecemeal and a lot of it will always be unpopular. I have only one broad recommendation which I feel still hasn’t really been enacted in my lifetime: recruit the best people possible to teach in state schools, pay them wages comparable to lawyers and doctors and let them teach in the way they think best.

The irony (yes, progressive, even postmodernist, term) for me about this disagreement and debate is that I can pretty much guarantee that Toby Young, Andrew Old, myself and a bunch of other people could sit through lessons of completely different styles – progressive, fluid, group-based, traditional, ‘chalk and talk’, ‘yoghurt knitting’, whatever – and reach a decent consensus about which were the good lessons and which were not. Teachers make teaching and teachers are as different from each other as we are from everybody else.

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