Do Catholic, state-selective and high-performing private schools predominantly use "traditional methods"?

Janet Downs's picture
“…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 thinking.

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.
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Laura McInerney's picture
Wed, 16/04/2014 - 17:23

I also used the PISA data to show this wasn't true:

…

Andy V's picture
Wed, 16/04/2014 - 17:57

Anecdotal I know, but during my rounds on supply in West Yorkshire, which includes several RC secondary schools, I have not found them to be using talk and chalk, stand and deliver or rote learning. Rather I've found a refreshing carousel of style that help provide a good mix of delivery activities. Indeed, in my interim role - sole deputy - at a RC secondary in London I didn't find the traditional styles in evidence either. That school also provided a varied style of T&L activities. Neither did I find the traditional methodologies during the previous interim assignment at a well heeled independent 3-19 school in Yorkshire.

So I cannot support Mr Young's perception.

Patrick Hadley's picture
Wed, 16/04/2014 - 23:25

Toby Young is, as usual, talking with the benefit of complete ignorance.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 17/04/2014 - 13:41

To give Toby his due he did say knowledge and skills were intertwined - people can't think unless they've got something to think about. But what someone thinks about needn't always be something that's stored in "long-term memory". It can be something previously recorded (in Aeschylus's day it would have been by writing; today it could be taped, photographed or filed on a computer). It could be something unfamiliar - something totally new which someone's just read, heard or seen.

A thinker will, of course, bring what s/he already knows to the question. And that previous knowledge is an accumulation of what s/he's been told, experienced, read, heard, seen, discussed... That's why education is often described as building on what's already there ie centred on what the child already knows.

But centring on what the child already knows doesn't mean never moving forward.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 17/04/2014 - 14:24

Toby writes: "The consensus after three decades of research into the development of the human brain is that children cannot engage in critical thinking without having first memorised an array of facts relevant to the task at hand."

That's right: thinking needs something to work on. That something is acquired knowledge. And acquired knowledge is more than memorised facts.

Toby assumes memorisation only occurs via rote learning. But memorising something doesn't have to be rote learned. Repeating something makes it stick, yes, but memory can be helped by the use of mnemonics, or by singing, for example. I can remember Pythagoras's theorem because of the Danny Kaye song.

And memory isn't necessarily instant recall - memories can be triggered by sights, sound, smell, taste, reminiscing, aide-memoir, association. That's the theory behind Ted Hughes's advice about memorising poems. Rote learning is the least effective method, he writes. Instead, he advises connecting words to a striking visual image. He quotes St Thomas Aquinas, the patron saint of memory systems:

"Man cannot understand without images".

Andy V's picture
Thu, 17/04/2014 - 18:26

I wonder if Tony Buzan would agree with Mr Young? Mind mapping Buzan style is hardly learning by rote or pure memorisation. Rather it is a set of triggers or stimuli that prompt recall.

There are schools that have A Level Critical Thinking on their timetable. Indeed, at the London school I did interim sole deputy in they started in during the summer of Y10 - post GCSE RS - running into Y11 with examination in spring term. So it raises the question as to what Mr Young means by critical thinking.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 18/04/2014 - 08:20

To be fair to Toby he didn't actually say critical thinking wasn't important. He said it wasn't possible without "an array of facts". If he means knowledge, then I'd agree. And as I said above, knowledge is accrued from many sources and is more than "an array of facts". You could argue that reducing knowledge to the lowest common denominator of formally taught facts, especially if the preferred way of teaching these facts is by rote learning, devalues knowledge acquired by other means.

Toby rightly says there's a false dichotomy between knowledge and skills (eg critical thinking) but then sets up just such a dichotomy by saying those who argue for the teaching of critical skills are anti-knowledge. He writes:

"They [the Blob] all believe that skills like ‘problem-solving’ and ‘critical thinking’ are more important than subject knowledge;"

But subject knowledge on its own is of no use unless it's used for something - for solving a problem, analysis, application. That's why many schools, including "traditional" grammar schools, stress critical thinking and even (gulp) offer it as an exam, as Andy points out.

Andy V's picture
Fri, 18/04/2014 - 12:41

It can also be argued that Philosophy and Ethics involve a large element of critical / analytical thinking.

It also appears to have passed Mr Young by that the Pearson groups paper on making education work gives equal weighting to skills alongside knowledge, which set alongside the membership of the group and its breadth of academic and workplace experience does not support Mr Young's position.

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