BACK TO BASICS, WITH A CALL TO RENEW SELF-IMPROVEMENT IN LEARNING

BACK TO BASICS, WITH A CALL TO RENEW SELF-IMPROVEMENT IN LEARNING

I’m now in the middle of reading the essay by the philosopher and pedagogue Gregorio Luri, La escuela no es un parque de atracciones: Una defensa del conocimiento poderoso [School is not a Theme Park: In Defence of Powerful Knowledge, 2020], which, of course, I chose because I agree with the title. I guess this is how the author is weeding out the readers that might disagree with his views.

In essence, Luri disapproves of all the current pedagogical theories that, applied to actual teaching in school, have resulted in the very wrong view that learning should be fun and effortless. He is particularly critical of how competences have eroded the importance of knowledge; this is the reason why he finds the notion of ‘learning to learn’ meaningless; as he argues, unless you know about something (meaning that your memory retains information on the subject) there is no way you can truly learn, much less ‘learn to learn’. If, say, my Victorian Literature students have not memorized the names of authors, the titles of books, the basics of Victorian History, they won’t be able to learn how to write a paper on any of these aspects. Or, rather, they will, but their papers will be very poor. Luri’s argumentation is plain as daylight: the accumulation of knowledge has been wrongly derided by a pedagogy set on teaching skills, a pedagogy that forgets that nobody can teach or use skills without previous knowledge.

I read yesterday on thew newspaper Nius (yes, believe it or not) that Alexandre Sotelinos of the Universidade de Santiago de Compostela, has won the Abanca competition for best university teacher in Spain (the award is based on students’ votes combined with those of a jury). Sotelinos, a pedagogue by training, teaches in the BA in Pedagogy and the BA in Primary School Teacher Training. The article does not say on what merits he has won that competition; he himself just says that “I try to reinvent myself, learn plenty from other colleagues who have amazing projects and try to apply that to my classroom”, the classic endorsement of teaching innovation.

What called my attention, once I got over my deep envy of this Galician colleague, is how he reads the saying “Education through head, hand, and heart” by Swiss pedagogue Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827): “In the end, what this idea means is that beyond knowledge, we have to learn skills and how to manage emotions. And that to learn some things or others, all is related. That is to say, we can never learn if our emotional state is not adequate”. To begin with, I really doubt that 18th century pedagogy connects so neatly with its 21st century descendant; in the second place, Sotelinos’ view of education is precisely what Luri condemns as the failed strategy that has wrongly turned schools into unmanageable institutions where learning happens only patchily, depending on students’ decisions to engage or disconnect. And that’s not my envy speaking.

Reading Luri I have found myself questioning my own conservatism as an educator. Some of his proposals do sound conservative but, then, perhaps I need to accept that I am a conservative teacher. I agree with him that the classroom is not a place for students to be entertained, but for them to be focused and make an effort to learn. I am myself making the effort to teach them. Students at all levels of education should accept a basic discipline. Teachers must be respected and their lessons absorbed in attentive silence unless students are asked specifically to speak. In my possibly annoying view, the students’ body language and facial expression should show that they are listening and actively participating in their own education and respecting the teachers’ work in the classroom.

Furthermore, students need to accept that learning entails making a constant effort; studying is necessary, which includes making notes, memorizing data, developing work using the knowledge and skills acquired in class. Students must also know that, whether we like it or not (and I don’t), they are being assessed, which means that they need to make the best possible impression (for their sake, not the teacher’s). Attitude does count for assessment, as we all know. Learning, Luri says and I agree, must be a process of constantly meeting challenges, in which students tests themselves to the maximum of their abilities. Instead of this, we have at least 20% of students who are not interested in learning, and the problem is that we are making a long series of efforts to engage those students in an education they don’t really care for while we neglect the needs and abilities of the better students, who are actually the majority.

Luri mentions as one of the pedagogues that most firmly attacked the traditional school, the American John Holt (1923-1985), author among other books of The Underachieving School (1969), known in Spanish translation as El fracaso de la escuela (1977). As happens, I had an Ethics teacher in secondary school who asked us to read this book, when we were 15. I can’t remember his name but I recall that he looked as if he was being forced at gun-point to teach us, second-year students; perpetually embittered and aloof, he had a strangely mixed pedagogy, both very loose and very demanding intellectually. Part of his rebelliousness against the school was that we were allowed to seat as we pleased, which means we ended up on the tables until we saw that the chairs were more comfortable. His true rebelliousness, of course, consisted of making us read Holt (and Orwell, among others) and teaching us that school was not run thinking truly of us; yet, he was unable to establish any kind of dialogue with us.

This man was simultaneously one of the best and one of the worst teachers I have ever had. He gave me a deep shock lasting until today by asking me to absorb Holt’s deconstruction of the (American) school, a deconstruction so deep that Holt ended up promoting home-schooling. And this teacher was the first to ask me to freely express my views, for which I thank him. I learned much more, though, from the teachers who believed that the true rebellion against school consisted of making us become deeply learned students. I have never ever been in the hands of a teacher that saw their job as simply passing on information. I was always taught by imitation, by which I mean that my best teachers were so good I just wanted to be like them. I admired them, and I my own work was a way to express my admiration. I learned to love learning because they were wise and I wanted to be just as wise.

Logically, not all my teachers were wise, and some were rather poor pedagogues but in the pedagogy that came before the current one, that didn’t matter because what mattered was the students’ abilities, and responsibilities. I was always told at home that I was responsible for my studies, just as my father was responsible for his job. Studying was my job, and I had to do it well, regardless of my teachers, as he did his, regardless of his bosses. If my teachers were good, then I was lucky; if they were bad, I had to compensate for that. No excuses. Getting an education was regarded as a tough task: I would have never dreamed of saying that I was bored, for the adults around me would have replied that recess was for fun, not the rest of school. I just don’t recall any problems of discipline among my fellow students at any level, with few exceptions that we all understood to be a minority and very special cases. Teachers were respected, even when disliked, and school generally accepted, even when abhorred. Teachers did not spend, as they do now, specially in secondary school, a good portion of their time (Luri says 20%) trying to have students sit down and listen. We just did, as we walk in the street rather than skip and jump all over the place, or willfully disregard the traffic lights.

I think I am trying to say that there is currently a wrong impression that education used to work on the basis of the teacher’s authoritarianism and the institution’s implementation of a strong discipline. This is not my impression of my own education in public primary and secondary schools. They worked well because, I insist, teachers were respected, parents would not dream of undermining their authority and children generally behaved well, understanding that they were responsible for their own progression. Because of Holt and many other pedagogues that rebelled against traditional teaching, however, we have a now the chance to make learning truly thrilling but have lost the necessary personal discipline required to engage in studying. Perhaps I should blame Pink Floyd. I hate with all my soul their idiotic 1979 anthem “Another Brick in the Wall” and its chorus of kids singing “We don’t need to education / We don’t need no thought control / No dark sarcasm in the classroom / Teacher, leave them kids alone”, not only because I wanted very much an education, but because in my experience teaching had been about freeing my thinking and I had never encountered sarcasm, just encouragement.

Sotolino is optimistic and thinks that primary school teachers in particular are now beginning to be better valued, following the information we get on the news about the Finnish system. I am not so sure, but in any case my impression is that the secondary school remains the most problematic part of current education. In my time primary education ended at 14, with the less scholarly-minded students choosing to train for jobs. The extension of secondary school to 16 in most countries means that teachers face everyday a huge wave of adolescent resistance and rebellion, far different from my own secondary school, in which the kids aged 14-18 were struggling to go on to college and, thus, less prone to resisting education. I find, returning to Sotolino and to Pestalozzi’s “Education through head, hand, and heart”, that the heart has been overemphasized and the hand most neglected, with actual skills to do things with our hands instead of our brains being woefully neglected.

Yes, what I am saying is diversify education, make the compulsory segment shorter, give professional training the same status as academic training, make the university again a place for generating knowledge and not for training and, above all, respect teachers. The solution is not trying to entertain disaffected teenagers but building a better commitment to serious learning at all stages of education. This does not mean returning back to an authoritarian model but celebrating the main reason why education was demanded and extended: it is called self-improvement and consists of going as far as you can in the development of your abilities, no matter of what kind they.

Head, hand, and heart will follow if you are set on making the most of yourself, not beyond knowledge but beyond what is required and expected of you. After all, how you are taught is in the end far less important than how you learn. Just don’t forget this.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the posts is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/