Child-Centered Learning Has Let My Pupils Down
Jane Mitchell was the daughter of a lorry driver. Reflecting on her education during the 1940s, she wrote: “I enjoyed the mental drill and exercise I was put through, even the memorising from our geography book of the principal rivers and promontories of the British Isles … It never occurred to me to question the purposes or methods of what we were made to do at school. The stuff was there to be learned, and I enjoyed mopping it up.”
Jane went on to become a classics lecturer at Reading University. It is hard to imagine a child of her background taking so academic a career route today. Then again, it is hard to imagine that such a child today would receive the rigorous education she enjoyed.
What has changed between then and now? This question has dominated my thoughts since I became a history teacher at one of Britain’s abundant failing state schools. Having been educated in the private sector since the age of seven, I was not ready for the deprivation that confronted me at my new job. However, this was no material deprivation. At around £6,200 a year, average state spending per pupil is not far off the cost of a good private day school. Instead, it was a deprivation of effective teaching methods.
One in five pupils leaves British secondary schools functionally illiterate. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that a 2010 Confederation of British Industry report found 22 per cent of employers who hired school-leavers were obliged to give them remedial training in literacy. How can such a large proportion of our pupils pass through 11 years of state schooling and still not have the basics of literacy? The answer can be found in a pedagogical outlook which renounces rigour, embeds underachievement, and dominates the state sector.
During my teacher training, the university reading list covered the canon of “child-centred” educators. One of the most influential is the Californian academic and self-styled “liberation psychologist” Carl Rogers. In his 1969 work Freedom to Learn he proclaimed, “Traditional teaching is an almost completely futile, wasteful, over-rated function in today’s changing world,” adding, “no one should ever be trying to learn something for which one sees no relevance.”
The idea that pupils should be in charge of their own learning is at the core of “child-centred” education. This doctrine dismisses centuries of traditional pedagogy as authoritarian, and claims such methods are actually counter-productive as they kill a child’s desire to learn. For decades, progressive educators have claimed that educational standards will only improve once we free our children from the oppressive rule of schoolmasters. As the doyen of British progressive education A.S. Neill stated in 1962, “A child is innately wise and realistic. If left to himself without adult supervision of any kind, he will develop as far as he is capable of developing.”