This is a guest post by Catherine Burke, Professor Emerita of the History of Education at the University of Cambridge. Professor Burke’s research focuses on 20th and 21st century progressive education with a particular interest in material contexts. She has published widely on the history of relationships between architects and educators in 20th century school design and collaborates with architects designing schools today who are interested in drawing useful knowledge from past efforts to design schools to fit the child.
Artwork: ‘Didactics’ by Catherine Burke
As the Covid-19 public health crisis progresses, the serious disruption to schooling has resulted in a range of changes to the everyday that lead us to question some fundamental taken for granted characteristics of the modern school. This disruption has at least temporarily altered key relationships of schooling: relationships between pupils and their peers; between teachers and pupils; between schools and community. As schools have remained open for the children of key workers, the experience of relationships between bodies and space has altered. With fewer pupils in attendance, space has become available for imaginative and creative approaches to learning through doing, making, and constructing. Meanwhile, there has been a recognition that space might need to be found through temporary pop-up structures (at least in the summer months) and through the use of village halls, community centres and other public assets in the locality.
Space has been a constant consideration and spatial relationships underpinning the experience of education brought into sharp focus. The concept of school space has expanded through the real experience of teachers and pupils in schools and that of parents and their children at home. For a while it has been possible to imagine education being supported through and within a far greater variety of settings than is usual and the fundamental and basic requirement for care and nurture, whether in the school or in the home, has been shown to be pivotal. Soon the narrative of ‘learning loss’ and catch-up’ began to be projected by a government keen to reassert control and eager to prevent the system unravelling. So as preparations have been made for a return to universal compulsory attendance, once again the concept of space and spatial relationships of learning and teaching have been utilised.
To give one example. Just a few days before Boris Johnson’s announcement of a speedy project to build new schools, the Education secretary Gavin Williamson pronounced on the imperative that pupils, on returning to school post-pandemic, should be seated in rows. He even went as far as describing the tables as round or square*.
This has at least two effects. The critique of particularly shaped tables implies an attack on notions, if not realities, of collaborative or group learning and by further implication on the historic tradition of collective progressive pedagogies. Second, remarking on arrangements of furniture helps to stimulate an image in the public’s mind of the traditional classroom, regardless of any public health merits such arrangements might have. The hegemony of the classroom is thus safely projected in any imagined future school. Coupled with this, calling for the renewal of school building stock as part of ‘project speed’ is likely to have been intended to dampen down any speculation that pupils, their teachers and the wider community might be engaged in the design process.
So I want to suggest that, despite the rhetoric around evidence-based policy making, there are powerful mythologies of schooling at play that have the effect of reducing our capacity to imagine change. For a few weeks, these mythologies have been disrupted and have offered a window of opportunity for their consideration. These act as closed boxes containing assumptions that are ubiquitous and seemingly unquestionable. As such they not only constrain the possibilities of teaching and learning but they limit the parameters of research. While the boxes are closed, opening them leads not to certain answers but to debate and the search for evidence to explore the many angles contained inside.
Ten Mythologies of schooling.
1. That children learn best in buildings set apart from the community called schools.
2. That there is a predicted scale on which to judge and measure children’s development.
3. That learning takes place best in spaces called classrooms among peers of the same age.
4. That knowledge is best acquired through instruction.
5. That what is measurable matters most in education.
6. That children’s mental health is always best secured by attending school.
7. That school time should roughly mirror work time
(i.e. Monday-Friday 9-5)
8. That there is a common pace in which to learn and that slowing down a bit threatens educational progress.
9. That models of progressive schooling in the past that emphasised curiosity, an arts-led curriculum and discovery learning are not appropriate for today.
10. That we all agree and know what education is and what it is for.
Mythologies are very powerful because they set up barriers that prevent questioning and protect assumptions. These myths are a good part of the reason that change happens so slowly if at all in our schools. Myths also act as mediums of reassurance to the general population that all is well. I’m struck in the present situation by the drip-feed of images of ‘normality’ being displayed by the media. We are not shown images of bullying, isolation rooms, boredom, etc. Of course schooling needs to change and change should be evidence-based but these myths limit the kind of evidence we need to do more than scratch the surface.
*These comments by Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary for England, were made to the Conservative party 1922 committee in late June 2020. A response from one teacher is linked below: