Children do not become educated through the learning of facts; they need to absorb and own the value of what they are taught

Sorting out my books, yet again, I came across the 2009 Nuffield report on education and training for 14 to 19-year-olds, Education for All. I had a very small hand its production, and my copy contains a gracious handwritten note from Professor Richard Pring, the project director.

Professor Pring, philosopher of education, has been a hero of mine since I encountered his work while studying for my MEd in the early 70s.

His writings, and particularly his deeply analytical work on the thinking of John Dewey, the American philosopher, have sometimes attracted criticism.

So, for example, he describes, in the introduction to his Philosophy of Education, being challenged at a dinner by Sir Keith Joseph, Margaret Thatcher’s education secretary from 1981 to 1986.

“The reason he gave for the reprimand was that I had been responsible for all the problems in our schools . . . Asked to explain this, Keith Joseph asserted that it was me (and people like me) who had introduced teachers to the writings of John Dewey.”

At that time there was a concerted onslaught on Dewey, intent on making “child-centred” into a term of abuse – which, in some circles, it still is.

Child-centred is still a term of abuse in some circles

Richard Pring, though, does not see Dewey’s child-centredness in crude terms of leaving children to their own devices. Philosophy of Education includes his 1988 paper “Subject-centred versus child-centred education – a false dualism”.

Much of his argument for this “falseness” is around the perception of “value”. Subject-centredness assumes that what is taught is of intrinsic value. A child-centred view does not dismiss that, but says that the child needs to internalise the value.

The teacher has a clear role here. In fact, in a 2012 paper, Bring Back Teaching, Pring criticises the trend to define teaching in terms of “delivering the curriculum”, an activity carried out in the context of tests, practice tests, targets and measured outputs. He asks, as, increasingly do teachers: “But is this teaching?”

In today’s rather vulgar world of offensive tweets and ill-humoured blogs, Professor Pring might be called a “prog”. But if that’s so, then who, in the 70s and 80s, were the “trads”?

There’s no shortage of candidates, but I’d go for Professor Paul Hirst who died in 2003. He, with other like-minded academics, was impatient with an established 1970s classroom emphasis on the “manner” of teaching and learning rather than the “matter” (the content, or knowledge) that was taught.

Professor Hirst’s response came in his 1973 paper Liberal Education and the Nature of Knowledge that said children should be educated in discrete “forms of knowledge”, each with its own logical structure — mathematics, physical sciences, human sciences, history, literature and the fine arts, moral knowledge, religion and philosophy.

Significantly, though, neither Professor Hirst, nor any of the others who put knowledge at the centre of education, were thinking only of facts. There had to be more to it than that. Hirst writes in that same paper: “. . . to acquire knowledge is to learn to see, to experience the world in a way otherwise unknown, and thereby to come to have a mind in a fuller sense”.

Then in a passage that I find quite moving, he quotes philosopher, Michael Oakeshott, who, in The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind, also seeks for a deeper understanding of “knowledge”, using the metaphor of a conversation.

“As civilised human beings, we are the inheritors, neither of an inquiry about ourselves and the world, nor of an accumulating body of information, but of a conversation . . . Education, properly speaking, is an initiation into the skill and partnership of this conversation in which we learn to recognise the voices, to distinguish the proper occasions of utterance, and in which we acquire the intellectual and moral habits appropriate to conversation.”

That’s not much different, I’d say, from Pring’s appeal for an education where children absorb and own the value of what they are taught.

Yah-boo debate gets us nowhere. Children need teachers, but do not become educated through the learning of facts. There’s a synthesis to be found – in Michael Oakeshott’s “conversation”, perhaps.