“Education from the neck up?”

I want to try and unpick the question of formal and informal curricula a bit more.
McCann’s account of Samuel Wilderspin’s desperate attempts at gaining his distressed pupils’ attention by instituting learning through play show how far we have come – and not come? – since the day in 1826:

When their mothers had left, nearly all the children started crying ‘Mammy! mammy!’ Wilderspin’s wife tried to calm the tumult but had to leave the room and Wilderspin also ‘exhausted by effort, anxiety and noise’ was compelled to follow her, ‘leaving my unfortunate pupils in one dense mass, crying, yelling and kicking against the door’. In despair Wilderspin picked up his wife’s cap adorned with coloured ribbons, put it on to a clothes prop and dashed back into the schoolroom. ‘All the children’, he found to his amazement, ‘ . . . were instantly silent.’ The silence was only momentary, however, but before general disorder could break out again Wilderspin had cried, ‘Now we will all play “Duck”, and I will be the great Duck.’ The children immediately began a chorus of ‘quack, quack, quack’. Then he said, ‘Now we will play at “Hen and Chickens”, and I will be the old hen, and when I cry “cup-biddy”, “cup-biddy”, you must all come.’ Wilderspin was surprised to find that it all succeeded admirably and twelve o’clock came before they knew where they were.
(cited in McCann, P (1966))

It is an isolated incident in the early career of an educator – at one level. It can also be seen as a turning point (as McCann (1966) and Singer (2005) might argue) in the application of enlightenment educational theory to practice, the incident that exemplifies a growing understanding of “child-centredness.”
We have come to the key phrase. What does it mean to be “child-centered”? I suspect that, at its bluntest, it means (as Singer seems to imply) a power-shift towards listening to children, reflecting on those needs and how they are expressed. The questions I raised in the Reflective Reader (Wild and Mitchell 2007) remain pertinent:

  • How does the practitioner know when to intervene?
  • Is it about policing behaviour, or about instruction?
  • Is play a private world for children?
  • Can this level of interaction be sustained where the curriculum is led in such a way that the adults’ time is taken up with direct teaching?

But of course the bigger questions remain: how do policy makers and implementers understand children’s learning? At what level is child-centredness a genuine political, practical and moral choice?

Or is this the wrong question? Ken Robinson’s light but engaging speech (“Education professors…They live in their heads… disembodied; they look upon their bodies as a form of transport for their heads…”) raises questions about how learning and intelligence are conceived, and whether the needs education addresses are employment based (“Don’t do music, you’ll never be a musician”) which he describes as “benign advice, profoundly mistaken.”

It is fascinating to read in Margaret McMillan’s Education through the Imagination (1923 edition in front of me, but the first edition is pre WWI) that

“The learning of facts and of formal arts, the training of the verbal memory, the discipline of the classroom and the school are very good things in their way, but they are only means to an end. The energy that wins them and uses them is needed everywhere…” (p11)

McMillan is vociferous about how parrot-learning is a destructive thing – but in looking at her attack on formal learning we need to remember not only the context of much Edwardian/Georgian schooling (pace Wilderspin above, and others) but also the psychological construct she is using, in which memory is seen as unsubtle, a monolith that “has to be broken up…to be of real use.” (p21).

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