Thursday, February 14, 2008

A traditionalist teacher

I've long held the view that Western societies won't escape their current trajectory until a section of the political class abandons liberalism in favour of a principled traditionalism.

Enter Glynne Sutcliffe. She grew up in Melbourne, obtained an honours degree in history and and a masters in South Asian languages and civilisation, taught at both secondary and tertiary level and now runs an early learning centre in Adelaide.

She has written an article proposing an education revolution. Her proposals are, in fact, revolutionary as they contradict basic tenets of the modern education system.

She writes, for instance, that "teachers who care most about content mastery are likely to be considerably better than teachers who have been required to prioritise generalist classroom management skills".

She criticises, too, the "child-centred" approach to education, as ultimately alienating and confusing for most students. She writes of this approach:

But under progressivist pedagogies teachers aren’t supposed to teach - they are specifically told that they should abandon completely the role of “sage on a stage”, and instead be a “guide on the side” - the much over-hyped “facilitator”.

She also stands firm against the whole technocratic approach to such issues by highlighting the importance of teacher personality (she uses the term "flamboyance") in motivating and capturing the interest of students.

But most impressive, in my view, is her explanation of what has gone wrong. She believes that teachers need to assert a positive authority in the classroom:

it raises the whole issue of authority, a much vexed question in modern western society. Let me say clearly, it is my view that any teacher must have authority to be in any way capable of teaching anybody anything. Students rarely develop an enthusiasm for independent study (the sine qua non of the portfolio/project/assignment system) unless an obviously well-informed teacher has a cultivated mind that both provokes emulation and generates teasing questions that get under a student’s intellectual skin.

... authority is best sourced in respected knowledge and experience, as well as the power to achieve identified and substantive goals ...

What is the stumbling block to accepting such positive authority wielded by teachers?

Here we have to go back for another look at the assumptions of progressivism, and the post-Enlightenment certainties that human beings reach their fullest potential as self-actualised “independent individuals” living out their days in an egalitarian universe of similar others.

The last quote really gets to the heart of the modernist project. I find it encouraging that Glynne Sutcliffe has identified the underlying problem of liberal modernism so clearly.


  1. I've actually written about education on many occasions. Here is an article with links to heaps of other articles on the subject:

    Its ridiculous that learnuing would become child-centred, as though they can be as responsible and sensible as adults. What's instead required is the return of phonics, regular testing and a focus on literacy and numeracy above political and educational ideologies.

  2. Modern liberal education sets unrealistic expectations about what sort of 'people skills' teachers need.

    Where there are no firm rules set down by a school about how its teachers can discipline students, only highly confident, extroverted teachers can maintain any kind of order.

    Such an environment makes it very hard for smart but unassuming teachers who lack "flamboyance" to function effectively.

  3. I didn't realize this same problem was as epidemic down under. How students feel often trumps what they objectively learn here are well.

    In 1987, the school board of the state of California decided to adopt a brand new reading curriculum called Whole Language. This replace traditional phonics with memorization and word guessing. Pictures in the books were meant to help children guess the words that they hadn't memorized. Since California is seen as a leader to the rest of the country (a distinction it should NOT hold) other districts followed suit. The results have been disastrous as many in that generation are now illiterate adults. But the program was heralded as the good marks on report cards helped the child's self esteem.

    I read the blog Leon linked to and it seems that despite evidence tot he contrary, there are some that will still insist that trowing more money at the problem will fix it. It actually makes the problem bigger with the increase of bureaucracy that accompanies the money.

    Mark ties this back to autonomy and makes a good point. Historically, public education has been supported because it benefited SOCIETY to have literate, productive individuals. Not because it made those individuals better, fell good, etc.