This is my second foray into `A Very Short Introduction series'. This edition covers the developmental process by which education has evolved through the ages into the present time. The author looked at the way many countries go about formulating their educational process, and the correlation between countries shows, that there is more than just common threads and in most cases they are virtually the same. As this book by definition is meant to be `short' the author seems to be fully conversant with the topics at hand there is no `waffle' here, the text is succinct and to the point. This is not a `dry' treatment of the subjects and questions that are posed, but rather a thought provoking read. Unfortunately education has always been a political `football' in the UK, and the challenges that face British Education are immense - the questions in this text are all too relevant and need to be understood. This book, and the message, it ultimately conveys crosses the parameters of whether this book is just for teachers or similar practitioners, but for anyone interested in education.
I first learned about the Very Short Introduction series a few months ago through a piece of freelance work indexing another volume in the series. They are small, attractive volumes of between 100 and 150 pages, aiming to offer "a stimulating and accessible way into a new subject". Many, including this one, are written by academics but are aimed at an intelligent general reader, assuming no previous knowledge.
Education is a huge subject and a much longer introduction could hardly hope to cover everything, so Gary Thomas, Professor of Education at Birmingham University, explains what he will cover in the introduction. He also sets out briefly his own experience (including difficult experiences as a pupil and working as a teacher and educational psychologist, being a parent and a school governor, before moving into academia).
He then starts with a brief history of European education from ancient Rome and Greece to compulsory schooling, then outlines some of the controversial questions in educational theory and political thinking on education - such as whether education should be about learning facts or learning to think, between progressivism and formalism. His biases are fairly clear - I am sure he is no fan of our current Education Minister (I have no problem with that) but he does also make some fairly commonsense points, for example that very few schools or teachers are at either extreme - most schools mix the two approaches. Then there are questions about the impact of testing and examinations on education, and whether it is possible to reduce inequality through education, or whether particular policies are just perpetuating the problem.
While this book looks at education around the world, parts on policy and practice are very much focused on the author's own country - examples from elsewhere are mainly those which our governments have considered when proposing reforms, such as charter schools in the US.
There are a few illustrations, including diagrams, photographs and even cartoons. There is a substantial index and more than 8 pages of suggested further reading for any of us who want to know more.
I thought this was a useful introduction with lots of thought provoking stuff. I have read some education theory and history before and didn't find much that was totally new to me, but was amused to discover that some theories have been contradicted and reevaluated just in the last 10 years. He is definitely quite biased and well to the left of the current government (ok, that's not saying much) but I had no issue with that.
My biggest quibble with the book? I'm a bit worried by its collectable visual appeal, I want to go and acquire lots of the others and I don't have space.
on 16 April 2014
This Kindle edition I read was clear, interesting and kept me reading to the end - chapter after chapter, which is what I very much enjoy in a good read.
The author explained sometimes, complex reasons for why us Brits educated the way we do today. If you decide to give this a read you'll see what I mean... Each chapter can be read on its own - but I was able to get to the end in about 4-5 sittings.
This introduction was easy to understand and the recommended reading at the back contains some useful references including a youtube link of Sir Ken Robinson on the subject of "Changing Education Paradigms", keyword search for it, if you like. Again, why do we teach the way we do? Why do we group young people into batches? As if the most important thing about them is the date of manufacture???
Anyway - hope this review was helpful. This book comes highly recommended.
on 31 August 2013
This book might be best summed up as a very short introduction to how a retired teacher training academic thinks. This is not all bad - it is the distillation of a lifetime in education. It is not even all bad that some of it comes across as an expansion of lectures he must have given.
It has a wholesome emphasis on debunking `teaching to the test' and on learning as being about thinking and doing. The author clearly values good teaching - rather than patent medicines for education that substitute for teachers' judgement. The path to success may be through enjoying learning to read, motivating the pupil in the longer term, just as much as breaking down words and getting early results with phonetic teaching. He acknowledges that group work can be difficult to put into practice, and that `work that requires concentrated individual effort is best done in a setting which minimises distraction.' He also reports results that show that `when informal teaching was good, it was very, very good, but when it was bad, it was horrid. In the hands of a run-of-the-mill teacher, formality seemed to offer a safer option.'
He quotes Alison Wolf's healthy scepticism about whether greater investment in education really has the added value some people think it has - questioning its automatic link to economic growth.
There is also a sensible emphasis on the 40% or so who at 15 have not gained 5 or more good GCSES - although he is a bit loose on his facts about how many come out with no qualifications, and how many move on to more vocational equivalent qualifications later.
There is a hilarious debunking of teaching the classics such as Latin and Greek (although failing to mention that they can actually be a fascinating exploration of the origins of our language and culture, vocabulary and grammar) - quoting Harold Benjamin `The Sabre-tooth Curriculum' which has the traditionalists arguing for sabre tooth tiger scaring remaining on the classical curriculum even after the tigers are extinct, and refusing to introduce the new techniques of bear pit building, because that would just be `training' rather than education.
Early on, the author sets up a dichotomy between formal and progressive education - free-thinking education for democracy and challenge, formal education for transmission of information and compliance; `discovery versus authority'. This feels throughout like a bit of a helpful caricature of most teaching positions. There is no discussion of whether you actually need to know stuff in order to be able to challenge it, although the need for `students to learn the structure of a subject rather than just facts and techniques' to allow a `mental map of a subject to emerge for a student' is acknowledged.
Since education often replicates social divisions - social backgrounds and poverty are highly predictive of educational outcomes in the formal system (asserted rather than proved here) - it is almost as if he believes that formal education has no added value and is simply a sorting process for reinforcing existing social advantages. He regards most of what he learnt at school as irrelevant in terms of practical use. He would clearly prefer that learning was placed more in a practical context. But ideas that someone might learn maths and become an engineer, or that they might need new opportunities and understanding open to them, and experience success in education that changed their ideas about who they were, went beyond the ideas that family had given them, and created a new sense of identity, are clearly not ones he buys into.
It is a relief when he finally (it takes until page 99) quotes someone who dissolves the formal-progressive dichotomy - acknowledging that it is not either or but both and - both subject knowledge and imagination/understanding. According to Ted Wragg, the curriculum can be thought of as a three dimensional `cube' with three planes -
- First, the subjects, maths, English, Geography...
- Second, cross curricular themes - citizenship, language, imagination
- Third, teaching styles - discovery, observation, teamwork, demonstration or practice.
He reviews some entertaining (and perhaps sensible) ideas on alternative approaches to a core curriculum - Confucius' recommendations for `manners' to be taught, the Romans' emphasis on rhetoric. Postman wants astronomy, archaeology and anthropology for a wider perspective. Guy Claxton wants ethics, risk management and probability, empathy, negotiation and a whole host of non subject-based qualities. Essentially, though, be falls down behind those who believe that established subjects provide a structure for understanding.
Overall, this book would have benefited from the kinds of peer review and challenge that other books in this `short introduction' series have undergone as part of the creative process. It is an essay that misses opportunities to take a wider perspective.
The focus is firmly on schools and children - not on adult or vocational learning, with brief nods to breaking down the age barrier in schools and to the idea of a continuing learning account. Do not expect here any discussion of the history of working men's colleges, or evening classes, or the Open University, or of the impact of television on access to life time learning and the massive popularisation of interest in the arts.
There is no discussion of the quality and structure of vocational education. There is no discussion of how universities may change - as university education becomes commoditised and consumers as paying customers demand something less provider-driven.
There is no real discussion of the trends in secondary education - the massive expansion for instance in those who are expected to pass exams, and the change in learning styles and text books that have come with it as subjects are broken up into bite-sized chunks and clearer structures, informal language, and tips on what to do and what to say to `succeed'.
Do not expect here any informed reflection on what the internet is doing to education - how it is changing pastimes and attention spans, how it is including and excluding people, or how it is shifting the concept of any core curriculum and shifting research approaches and learning styles. We live in an instant world - teachers are part of the entertainment industry.
Discussion of education in terms of wider social and historical trends is limited. The Education Act 1944 is dismissed as socially and intellectually divisive and based on discredited IQ tests. There is no consideration of its social and economic role, of its time, in identifying a group to be educated for a massively expanded middle class, propelling many out of their social class of origin; nor would you discover here that it was the 1944 Act which actually introduced universal secondary education. There is no discussion of how the comprehensive movement is itself not just a liberal democratic invention but driven by changing societal need - for an expanded white collar, flexible workforce, with a smaller apprenticed, industrial group.
He does not explore what it means for whole schools to fail or the social challenges many inner city schools struggle with; nor what it means for social equality when poor kids struggle in poor classes with disturbed fellow pupils; nor what it means to turn around such schools. What lies behind the author's comment: `for a small number schools are a refuge and a relief'? Perhaps they should be for more young people? We hear something, but too little, in this essay about how parents can be supported more, so that the gap between home and school is narrowed, and learners get the support they need to open up opportunities. There seems at the end to be a liberal arrogance, and a ducking of the issue, in the author's closing suggestion that - `if schools do not disproportionately improve - or harm - the life chances of their charges, why not free them to pursue other ends?'