“…the old-fashioned approach to education that still prevails in Catholic schools, selective state schools and high-performing private schools has almost no defenders.”
Toby Young, Prisoners of The Blob
These “old-fashioned” methods, according to Young, include direct teaching instruction (aka “chalk-and-talk”) and “rote learning”. But do Catholic, state-selective and private schools predominantly use this approach? Do they turn their back on such “progressive” notions as “critical thinking” and “child-centred learning”?
The answer would appear to be No. Top performing London Oratory School, a Catholic school for boys, stresses critical thinking several times in its sixth-form prospectus
. The school even offers an exam in this “fundamental academic competency”. Bourne Grammar School mentions the development of critical thinking in its sixth form prospectus
. And a TES article
in 2012 said Eton College was “moving away from results and content to pupil-centred learning”.
It is, of course, impossible to conclude from such a small sample that all Catholic, state-selective and private schools similarly espouse critical thinking or pupil-centred learning. But these three are recognised as among the best of their kind.
It would also be wrong to imply that because they encourage critical thinking they never use didactic teaching methods when appropriate.
Young’s book is an accumulation of arguments he’s used before
: he breathes new life into zombie statistics
, cites other Civitas publications liberally and even quotes Aeschylus:
"Memory is the mother of all wisdom."
But other translations* give a different meaning. Prometheus, bound eternally to a rock having his gizzards plucked out in punishment for giving humans the gift of fire, explains why he is being tormented:
“Number, the primary science, I
Invented for them, and how to set down words in writing –
The all-remembering skill, mother of many arts.”
My translation and others* differ from Young’s, but the meanings are the same: the ability to record information by writing it down is the “all-remembering skill”, the memory. Recording aids memory and this, in turn, inspires creativity, innovation and, yes, the getting of wisdom. But remembering alone isn’t enough – the knowledge needs to be used, analysed, mulled over and synthesized. And that brings us back to critical thinkin
Knowledge and the skills to use it are both needed as I argue here
. It is, as Young rightly says, a false dichotomy to separate the two. It’s strange, then, that he should argue so strongly for the former while deriding the latter and that he should frame the discussion as “we” and “they” locked in a fight to the death
“No matter what progressive educationalists might come up with, we’ll always have our weapons: Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Plato. This is a war we will win; but it’s important we make sure it’s a conclusive victory.’
I don't think Shakespeare promoted a particular view of education expect perhaps "the whining schoolboy...creeping like snail Unwillingly to school". Wordsworth was part of the Romantic movement which Young blames for the “child-centred” anarchy which is supposed to permeate non-Catholic and non-selective English state education. And Plato was a student of Socrates whose "method" involved skilful questioning to develop critical thinking.
Critical thinking – it appears we’re back to the beginning.
*This line is sometimes translated as “mother of the Muse/the Muses/the Muses’ arts” or “mother-nurse of all arts”. The quotation I gave above was on p34, Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound
, translated by Philip Vellacott, Penguin Classics, London, 1961.
Details of the Slow Education movement described in the TES article about Eton College are here
. Maurice Holt describes Slow Education in this thread