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Posts Tagged ‘Martin Robinson’

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The seemingly unending battle between ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’ education thrives on tired old stereotypes, caricatures, and cartoonish images. ‘Old’ versus ‘new,’ ‘knowledge-rich or ‘well-being’ informed, ‘teacher-centred’ versus ‘student-centred,’ ‘rigorous’ or ‘flabby’? Veterans of the Edu-Wars liken it to a “Punch and Judy Show.” As British education guru, Sir Michael Barber once said: “The road to educational hell is paved with false dichotomies.”

So, when a new book comes along, every so often, promising to bridge the chasm or transcend the battle, it is welcomed by those in the educational trenches or watching the ‘sham battle’ from a safe distance.  The latest such offering, Guy Claxton’s The Future of Teaching (April 2021), promises to put an end to the seemingly interminable conflict, but utterly fails to do so. Instead, he serves up a “straw-person” in the form of Direct Instruction (DI) and Knowledge-Rich (KR) curriculum for the singular purpose of shooting it down. That’s most disappointing because Professor Claxton purports to be a conciliator and a proponent of marrying knowledge and skills.

Claxton’s The Future of Learning sets the right tone at the beginning. Renowned student assessment researcher Dylan Wiliam raises our hopes with his trademark balanced and judicious forward and Australian education giant John Hattie provides a ringing cover-jacket endorsement. It promises to make you think, re-examine your assumptions, and consider changing your mind. Most of the initial section of the book covers the competing theories, then it devolves into a very public flogging of the apparent infidels at the gates, identified and labeled as the “DI-KR lobby-bubble.” 

Highly respected educators such as Tom Sherrington, author of The Learning Rainforest, classified as members of the “DIKR” dissidents, are rightly perturbed by a book pretending to be conciliatory, while casting out education researchers, mostly based in schools, who have the temerity to challenge the shibboleths of the education professorate. Working directly with teachers in schools across the U.K., Sherrington disputes Claxton’s assertions. “The ideas embedded in a knowledge-rich curriculum and the use of instructional teaching,” he wrote,” make a massive difference to teachers and children—especially when they are grappling with challenging concepts.” Dismissing DI and KR research out-of-hand, according to Sherrington, does not show an openness to learning from or building upon the latest cognitive science, or a “consensus-building style” but rather a “melodramatic take-down approach.”

The growing acceptance of the Long-Term Memory/Working Memory (LT/WM) model advanced by John Sweller, Paul A. Kirschner, and UK teacher-author Carl Hendrick, clearly gets under Claxton’s skin. He chooses to grossly oversimplify the concept and misinterpret the explanatory schematic as if it depicted “a physical space that fills up” and “the bottleneck effect” as something afflicting each and every student.

Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) should not be so easily dismissed because it addresses one of the biggest inhibitors to student learning. Throwing complex problems at children without the requisite prior knowledge has long been identified as a problem and we now know so much more about “how learning happens” in the minds of students and teachers. Schematics like the LT/WM model are extremely helpful as easy to understand explanatory tools for us. We need to know how much information/knowledge children can handle and what’s their capacity to handle complex abstract things. Knowing this is essential to your teaching/instruction and a key to your effectiveness in the classroom.

Claxton is exceedingly careful in evaluating the cognitive research and writing of one particular academic associated with the so-called “DIKR” camp.  The author and his entourage are unprepared to challenge Daniel T. Willingham. Now that his work is widely recognized and respected in the United Kingdom, as it is in the United States, Claxton has given it a “closer reading” and sees its subtleties. Professor Willingham’s classic work, Why Students Don’t Like School? (2010/2021) and his corpus of cognitive research make him unassailable, even by authors out to discredit those sharing similar views in academe and the classroom.

The popularity of Tom Sherrington’s presentations on “Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction” and the accompanying researchED instructional guide must be wreaking havoc out there with beginning teachers as well as regular practitioners in the schools.  It’s a refreshing change to see a teacher resource spreading like wildfire without the imprimatur of the education schools. Speaking in a teacher’s voice it captures well what real teaching in real classrooms involves – effective questioning, modelling, scaffolding, and independent practice. In other words, it’s not entirely about facilitating programmed activities, facilitating play spaces, and letting kids figure things out in minimally-guided classrooms. 

 Regular working teachers do tire of the sham battle and Claxton’s book will only perpetuate it by denigrating those who challenge the prevailing education school orthodoxy. His recent Book Launch interview with Kath Murdoch made that clear to everyone. A wider range of voices, mostly research-informed, school-based educators, have forced their way into the vital global conversation about improving the quality and effectiveness of teaching. While Claxton applies labels to supposed factions, he seems unwilling to acknowledge that what caused the most recent disruption was a remarkably spontaneous teacher-research movement. It’s clear that the author has yet to grasp the catalytic effect of researchED on research-awakened teachers everywhere.

Leading advocates of Instructional Teaching and a Knowledge-Rich curriculum will not be disbursed or denied because the ideas they have seeded are already influencing teaching and learning in schools. Highly original works like Daisy Christodoulou’s Seven Myths About Education, Martin Robinson’s Trivium 21c, Greg Ashman’s The Truth About Teaching, and Paul A. Kirschner and Carl Hendrick’s How Learning Happens, have filled a vacuum created when Claxton and his education school colleagues became absorbed in promoting school change theories and essentially abandoned the field. Ideas that expose the prevalence of “Zombie Ideas in Education” are threatening to the status quo. That is essentially what Claxton’s book seeks to sustain. The genie is out of the bottle and rank and file teachers are unlikely to return to the cocoon.

Why does Guy Claxton’s The Future of Teaching completely miss the mark?  For a book purporting to chart a middle course, why is it so dismissive of those holding divergent views on the science of learning?  To what extent does it reveal the extent of the educational divide between education school academics and teacher- practitioners? Simply put, is it possible for a mature leopard to change its spots?  

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Curriculum and pedagogy have become captives of the Machine and a few brave souls in the education world are challenging the new orthodoxy. When Leo Marx’s 1964 classic of American literary criticism The Machine in the Garden first appeared, it met with a cool reception, especially among those enthralled with the modernizing forces of the urban-industrial order. Today, that book is hailed as “the most stimulating book in American studies and the one most likely to exert an influence upon scholarship.”

Martin Robinson’s Curriculum: Athena versus the Machine (Crown House Publishing, 2019) makes a bold, imaginative and compelling case for rediscovering the foundations of a knowledge-rich curriculum. Confronting the “deep learning” supposedly facilitated by machine learning, we are reintroduced to a sadly forgotten world where knowledge still matters and teaching is about making human connections and future-proofing today’s students.  It is, predictably,ruffling feathers in conventional progressive educational curriculum circles and even sparking the odd superficial, reactive drive-by assessment.

Robinson’s latest book is a worthy sequel to his ground-breaking 2013 education philosophy and teaching classic, Trivium 21c: Preparing Young People for the Future with Lessons from the Past. Thought-provoking and enlightening books like Trivium 21c are rarities in a field littered with turgid, politically-correct and impenetrable philosophical tombs or ‘how to’ curriculum manuals designed to advance the careers of school-system consultants.  Resurrecting the trivium of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric has a way of exposing the frail foundations and ideologically-driven research sustaining the prevailing progressive consensus, seemingly threatened by the dialectic and comfortable in its presentist assumptions.

Robinson’s highly original work is so fresh that it breaks the conventional categories and binary thinking that readily applies “progressive” or “essentialist” labels to every new contribution to the field. While Trivium 21c and Athena versus the Machine testify to the centrality of knowledge and the pursuit of wisdom, it is all in the service of vanquishing machine-learning and restoring the human element in today’s classrooms.  It is a brilliant fusion of two traditions previously considered to be polar opposites and contradictions impossible to bridge in curriculum, teaching, and learning.

MartinRobinsonrED17Inspiring teachers like Robinson rarely posses the gift of being able to translate their discoveries and secrets onto the written page let alone witty, thought-provoking, elegantly-written, soundly researched books. The author, a seasoned London high school dramatic arts teacher, actually personifies what he is espousing — a stimulating, intellectually engaging, mischievous cast of mind that ignites your interest in a classroom.  Watching him in action at researchED conferences, he is a truly riveting teacher and his books further enhance that reputation.

Robinson tackles what is perhaps the central educational issue of our time — the contest between Athena (the goddess of wisdom) and the Machine (mechanical thinking and the quantification of learning). His metaphoric imagery breathes real life into the educational debate and reminds us that the “beating heart” of the school is its curriculum and it should not be subsumed by globalized conceptions of the function of education or attempts to reduce it to a vehicle for social justice. “Bringing the human back” into education has found a champion.

Reading Robinson’s book one is struck by how it is informed by, and builds upon, the cutting-edge social criticism of the late Neil Postman.  Searching for a way of reconstructing a “transcendent narrative,” he shares Postman’s despair over “life with no meaning” where “learning has no purpose.” Preparing students for success in the 21st century technological world or to challenge class inequalities fill the vacuum, but further accentuate utilitarian or instrumentalist conceptions of promoting social mobility or social justice.  Fully-educated students possessing a liberal education, Robinson argues, recognize the true value of knowledge and enjoy the significant advantage of cultural mobility.

The author delights in challenging prevailing curriculum assumptions and in tweaking educators absorbed in student-centred learning who invent the curriculum in response to passing fancy or children’s immediate interests. “Curriculum,” according to Robinson, “is a dialectical pursuit framed around great narratives” and should be respectful of our “subject disciplines” which are our “great muses.”

Parroting progressive education philosophy and echoing the popular dogma of “21st century learning” are more alike than recognized by many of today’s school change theorists, curriculum consultants and their followers.  Going along with prevailing currents associated with technology-driven learning, Robinson reminds us, means succumbing to mechanized processes that feed off quantifiable outcomes. Succumbing to the “doctrine of child-centred learning” or “project-based miasma” runs the risk of producing a generation of “little Napoleons” who are “conned into thinking that they are central to the culture in which they find themselves.”

Robinson has the courage to expose some oft-forgotten educational truths. Powerful, life-altering lessons should not be reserved for upwardly mobile families attuned to the benefits of liberal education. True wisdom comes from pursuing knowledge for its own sake. “Knowledge is,” in Robinson’s words, ” not a pick ‘n’ mix smorgasbord of consumerist passions” and is “understandable within contexts — for example, words are most useful in sentences, paragraphs, stories, and books” (p. 142)

Robinson’s Curriculum: Athena versus the Machine does pay homage to the wisdom bequeathed by Western civilization without making apologies for doing so. Athena is a cleverly-constructed proxy and conduit for Robinson’s own thinking on the purpose and role of education. He points out that dismissing the traditional humanist curriculum as “white or middle class” may be easy, but it is also ill-considered. The so-called Western education tradition has deep roots going back to Muslim scholars and pre-Christian thinkers. It has also been challenged, over the centuries, and proven itself capable of thriving on argument and emotion, reason and debate, and equipping students so that they can “make up their own minds.”

Martin Robinson’s new book stands out because it is so unlike the current crop of curriculum books pouring out of California-based Corwin Publishing and featured in Educational Leadership, the flagship magazine of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).  “Computer-aided inspiration,” envisioned by Seymour Papert in his seminal work Mindstorms (1980), gave way to “computer-aided instruction” and has now morphed into digital surveillance, data collection, and measurement of outcomes. That transformation goes unrecognized in too many books offering up curriculum panaceas.

The breadth and depth of  Curriculum: Athena versus the Machine sets it apart in the field of contemporary educational philosophy and criticism. It deserves to be discussed along with some of the most influential radical education texts, such as French philosopher, theologian and sociologist Jacques Ellul‘s The Technological Society (1954), Paul Goodman‘s Compulsory Miseducation (1964), Neil Postman‘s Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969), and Ivan Illich‘s Tools for Conviviality (1973). We are sometimes slow to recognize books that shatter perceptions and significantly alter our understanding of curriculum, teaching, and learning.

What makes Martin Robinson’s Curriculum: Athena versus the Machine such a compelling and original education book?   Can it be properly understood without reading and digesting its prequel, Trivium 21c?   Why is the book so difficult to categorize, label and dismiss? How does the current crop of system-bound curriculum books stack up against this piece of work? Will the book, like Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden, live on as an influential contribution to understanding societal transformation? 

 

 

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With the 2017-18 school year on the horizon, British English teacher and research lead Carl Hendrick produced a feature for The Guardian with the alluring title “Ten books every teacher should read.” Most of the ten books published over the past decade and listed as must-reads for teachers bore mighty familiar names, such as Daniel T. Willingham, John Hattie, Daisy Christodoulou, and Dylan Wiliam. On that list is one wild card offering, Martin Robinson’s highly original and intellectually stimulating 2013 book, Trivium 21c: Preparing Young People for the Future with Lessons from the Past.  It’s a courageous book that tackles the biggest issue of all – what is the true purpose of education and how does contemporary schooling measure up?

The author of Trivium 21c is an unusual fellow, a drama teacher-turned-teacher-philosopher, with an unmistakable independent streak. After struggling at school himself, he turned to teaching and joined the profession in his late twenties. Upon entering the classroom, he thrived as a highly motivational teacher of Drama and the Arts.  His initial Twitter handle was @SurrealAnarchy and that gives some indication of his willingness to engage in creative disruption. He wrote the book as a way of responding to his young daughter’s queries about the meaning of Latin terms and innate curiosity about the real purpose of schooling.

As a classroom teacher, Robinson was troubled by the tide in favour of a utilitarian education to prepare students for assessments and success in the 21st century workplace. “Kids were more focused on exams, grades and learning how to pass, ” he observed, “and were becoming less independent and less creative.”  “The new breed of students were customers demanding a service,” in his view, and increasingly expected to be “fed, some of them force fed” with lessons served up “ready cooked.”

In a field overflowing with inspirational educational leadership guides and magic bullet curriculum reform books, Trivium 21c occupies what headteacher Tom Sherrington described as “different ground altogether.”  It stands out as a manifesto for reforming and revitalizing educational practice, our discourse and our system based on a set of core principles that speak to what education means to individuals, communities, and society.

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Robinson’s explorations lead him back to the Trivium, the essential construct of liberal education dating from the time of the Ancients. The Trivium consists of three core components: grammar, dialectic and rhetoric. Here’s a capsule summary of what each element entails:

Grammar: The need for core knowledge — the cultural capital that we accrue through transmission, essentially the things that we all must know to function in the modern world;

Dialectic: The need to question, debate and discuss ideas, to form our own opinions, to engage in authentic experiences, and to grow in our capacities and build character;

Rhetoric: The need to be able to communicate our ideas and knowledge in a variety of forms,  to create and perform with flair and confidence.

 

Moving from Ancient Greece to the present day, Trivium 21c proposes a contemporary trivium (Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric) with the potential to unite progressive and traditionalist pedagogy and approaches among teachers, politicians and parents in the common pursuit of a better education. ‘The three ways of the trivium– knowing, questioning, and communicating — ,” Robinson claims, make for “a great education.” What he wanted for his own daughter was schooling that actually gave her “the grounding” to lead “the good life.”

Education policy and practice in Canada is, as in Britain and the United States, a subterranean battleground. Traditionalists argue for the teaching of a higher order of hard knowledge and deride soft skills. Progressives deride learning about great works of the past preferring ‘21c skills’ (21st century skills) such as creativity and critical thinking.  The bridge, in Robinson’s view, can be found in the trivium because it provides a framework that facilitates “preparing young people for the future with lessons from the past.”

Frustrated by a prevailing educational orthodoxy that seems incapable of  marrying respect for knowledge with creativity, to foster discipline alongside free-thinking, and to value citizenship with independent learning, Robinson favours what might be termed “progressive traditionalism.” Drawing from his work as a creative teacher respectful of the liberal education tradition, he finds inspiration in the Arts and the need to nurture learners with the ability to not only cope but surmount the uncertainties of our contemporary age.  His follow-up 2016 volume, Trivium 21c in Practice, provides a range of exemplars of best practice in a cross-section of U.K. schools.

Author Robinson will soon become better known in Canada for his provocations.  He will be making his first appearance on this side of the pond at researchED Toronto, November 10-11, 2017, at Trinity College, University of Toronto.  It’s not too late to reserve a seat to see him in action with more than two dozen leading educational thinkers and teacher-researchers from Britain and right across Canada. .

Why is Martin Robinson’s Trivium 21c such a refreshing education book?  Can the schism that divides so-called “traditionalists” and “progressives” be bridged through a reinvention of the trivium?  Is it possible to both walk on the shoulders of giants and to make giant creative leaps (from those shoulders) in the pursuit of better education for today’s students?  

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