A Plea to Drop the TRAD label

Embarrassingly, I've often said, "what's the point in learning stuff when you can just look it up on Google". I've also nodded approvingly when someone has said we should teach kids gardening because it increases their creativity. I've sent congratulatory emails to teachers when I've been in classes and seen the kids "engaged" in group work and enjoying their learning completely independently of what it was they were actually engaged in and "enjoying" doing. All these things I did because my entire teaching training (2007-08, peak "prog" pedagogy time methinks) told me they were good. As far as I'm concerned the status quo, the received wisdom, the dominant thinking was and indeed IS that these are the right things to do. I have also rather cringingly passed on the seemingly water-tight advice that we should "catch kids being good" in order to fix their behavior in the classroom. 

In my second year as a Teach First teacher in south-east London,  I asked to be observed by Ofsted with my most difficult year 10 class. Because I was quite good with the naughty-ones my HOD had shoved quite a lot of the not-going-to-get-a-Cs into one classroom and given them to me. I taught them what I thought was quite a good class and when the Ofsted crew gave me some feedback, they told me it was satisfactory. The feedback I got was simple, it wasn't good because you did more of the talking and they were "passively receiving the learning". No comment on what I taught, my questioning techniques, or the fact they behaved better than ever before, just that they were not talking or working as much as I was, so it wasn't good. I asked to be re-observed with my top-set year 10s who ate out of my hands, I gave them a debate-an-interesting-topic class and ba-da-bing, outstanding. Why? Because they were all actively engaged in learning. T'was confirmed in my mind that teacher talk was bad, them doing stuff was good. That shaped my view until Twitter happened. 

Through following certain people on Twitter and reading their blogs, my eyes were opened to the fact that it's okay to actually talk to kids about stuff, ask them questions, challenge them to think about the material and then test them on it. These were all the things I thought were wrong or bad teaching. It was revolutionary to realize it's absolutely fine to get them deliberately practicing things in silence and most importantly, I don't have to sugar coat the challenge of disciplinary learning with fancy pedagogy. Here's the thing, I till consider myself a progressive educator. I think well-being is important even if I'm quite skeptical about the ways it can be brought about. I think it's probably quite important to teach kids to program robots every so often as long as I can prove that they are learning to code and not just playing around. I like Rubik's cubes; I think something good is going on in the minds of people doing them. The knowledge argument has strengthened my belief in the importance of conceptual learning because it's shown me how conceptual understanding comes about and I have a more nuanced approach towards encouraging connections between different disciplines that doesn't crow-bar in interdisciplinary learning as an end-in-itself. I like giving kids time to develop independent service learning projects but I don't pretend to myself that because I'm getting them to work in groups I am, by definition, improving their "collaboration skills". 

Because of people like Daisy Christodoulou, Micaela school, Research Ed and the twitter "Trad" crew, I'm now better able to secure the best outcomes for my students and I can make my teacher's lives easier because I'm giving them less rubbish advice. My question is, why is this improved, research based-understanding, traditional? What's traditional about recall practice? Interleaving? Even consistency in discipline isn't that traditional, didn't people used to just get whacked by a slipper-wielding teacher when they stepped out of line? That sounds like a failure of the compassionate, stern, no-nonsense routines that lead to improved behavior and an easier life for many people. We are living in scary times when the sensible, pragmatic, "take-what-works" and use it middle ground has been eroded by rabid de-regulating market fundamentalists, authoritarian populists, and 1970s big-state Marxists. Teachers tend to be quite sensible pragmatic folk so can't we just find a way to de-politicize the language used around what makes effective pedagogy and just celebrate that cognitive science has simplified teaching for us? 

Is there anything traditional about good teaching? I went to a pretty "traditional" boarding school and nobody talked to me about interleaving or recall practice. I had some wacky teachers who would get us working in groups to make stuff and some who lectured until our eyeballs glazed over. Traditionality in schools has this diversity of approach. There are quotes right back in the annals of time about the unimportance of Gradgrindian factual learning. What's exciting and NEW is that we are learning why facts are so important just as humanity needs them most. Knowing stuff is radical, it's challenging the unthoughtful assumption that thinking can occur without a grounding in the true beliefs about how things actually are. Those "progs" who say, "we've always been able to teach knowledge and understanding" are failing to acknowledge the power that the pedagogical rejection of teaching-as-talking and the denigration of memory has had on young(ish) people like me. Make no mistake, I'm now working in my third country, the idea that teachers have to make engaging classes where kids work in groups and make solar systems out of polystyrene has spread throughout the world. Differentiation (aka lowering your expectations for some kids) is as ubiquitously peddled as it is ubiquitously stressful and unachievable. The hegemonic, powerful and wrong view that teaching knowledge is unimportant has become the modern dominant, unchallenged view of what good teaching is about. For the few that are challenging this, calling themselves traditionalists doesn't do justice to the radical nature of the message. 

Ironically, those who use the "just google it" argument are empowering the post-truth authoritarians on the right. The so-called-progressives who talk about "21st Century learning" without any reference to actually learning what this world is all about, what happened in history, what science has discovered, are seemingly quite happy to hand over humanity's cultural heritage to a bunch of tax-dodging advertisers whose only wish is to transform our every waking moment into a saleable commodity. The word Traditional sounds conservative, backward-looking, harking back to some green-and-pleasant world of teaching where all was well and Rosseau never happened. Just as there was nothing traditional about the Enlightenment, there is nothing traditional about knowledge and excellent teaching. It's an antidote to the pedagogy of emptiness that encourages us to prance, eyes wide open, into a circus of post-truth, navel-gazing orchestrated by the high-priests of technology.