opinion Children need facts, too

Didactic subject teaching is important for the very young, says Chris Woodhead, HM Chief Inspector of Schools
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The Independent Online
What happens in primary classrooms depends in part upon political decisions about the organisation and funding of schools. What matters more, however, is what teachers think they should be doing as teachers: the values and beliefs that inform their day-to-day actions and so determine what children learn.

Time and time again I am told that: "At the heart of primary education lies the child." The message here is that primary school teachers teach children; secondary teachers teach subjects. It is a neat dichotomy which offers obvious comfort to the primary teacher who, unlike the subject specialists in the secondary school, has to face the daunting demands of the national curriculum in its entirety.

The trouble is that it does not hold water. The primary school child has to be taught something. To read, for example, or to add up. Some history, perhaps, or science, or geography, or art. To teach means to impart a body of knowledge, understanding and skill: children cannot simply "be" at the heart of what primary teachers do.

Embedded, moreover, within this apparently innocent proposition is a further idea which runs like this:

"Didactic teaching amounts to no more than the transmission of factual knowledge. What we really want is for children to make knowledge their own through a process of personal discovery."

This is both dangerous and absurd.

It is dangerous because it leads to children making little or no progress in lessons where they are left for too much of the time to work on their own, more often than not ploughing through worksheets which make little or no intellectual demands on them.

It is absurd because didactic teaching is not a simple matter of "transmitting" factual knowledge. We can all remember the tedium of dictated notes, but good didactic teaching (if the phrase is not in itself tautologous) involves challenge, inspiration, and stimulating exposition. It depends upon the teacher involving the class in the subject matter and it is upon such teaching that, in turn, our children's learning depends.

It is absurd, too, because the implication is that factual knowledge is worth pursuing only if you want to compete in Mastermind. In reality we are talking about the complex of cultural understanding which ought to be the inheritance of every child and the responsibility of every teacher to communicate.

What does this mean in terms of the practicalities of how primary classrooms are organised?

First, and most important, it means that every primary teacher must regain that faith in didactic teaching which effective teachers have never lost. It will be argued that teachers employ and have always employed a mix of methods. Fine, if this in fact is the case. I agree entirely that the ideal must be for the teacher to select the range of teaching methods which is most likely to ensure that his or her children master new knowledge and skills.

The trouble is that the inspection evidence shows that this ideal is not as widespread as some would have us believe. If it were, we would not have more than a fifth of lessons judged by inspectors to be unsatisfactory or poor in quality.

Second, and linked to this, it means spreading the understanding that primary education, like secondary, is about initiating the young into a body of knowledge which our culture deems worth transmitting from one generation to the next and which they would not otherwise master. Again, this has never disappeared in good schools.

This, in turn, implies that, irrespective of size, primary schools must continue to review how they can make best use of the particular subject expertise and enthusiasm that individual teachers possess. To expect every teacher to have total responsibility for each of the nine national curriculum subjects (plus religious education) is, indeed, a tall order.

Recognising that the answer will differ from school to school, what, then, are the possibilities for specialist subject teaching? And to what extent does the traditional organisation of the curriculum into topics, facilitate the teaching and learning of the individual subjects? In the past, teachers have argued that what really matters are the links children are helped to make between different subjects. Now there is increasing acknowledgement that the appreciation of such links depends upon the prior recognition that history, for example, is something different from geography. This is a very healthy development.

The challenge now is to ensure, through the inspection of individual schools and the conclusions on the general health of primary education drawn from these inspections, that long-established belief and theories continue to be questioned in a robust debate which involves teachers and parents alike.

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