Tag Archives: Cultural Literacy

The flow of bad ideas in education…


Like something seen through bad glass, the liquid form of an idea can be tricky to discern. And, like flowing water, it’s course can be both corrosive and beautiful.

Strangely enough, in education the source of many a bad idea resides in a positive change that occurred during later stages of Victoria’s reign. The initial drip, in 1870, was the introduction of universal education. Then, as suffrage expanded during the early part of the 20th century, power began to diffuse through society. Soon, the ruling class would not be saturated solely with aristocratic men.

Fast-forward to WWII. It had become impossible for the ruling class to load-up ships with working class men and dispatch them off to remote corners of the earth, in order to fight for a nation in which many  still felt downtrodden. Understanding this, Churchill and Attlee promised that, following the conflict, Britain would become a land better, fairer. If the people fought for the nation, the nation would fight for the people, so they promised. And with improved schooling, healthcare, universities, and welfare, Britain did become a fairer place. So far, so good.

But with so much change occurring, it is perhaps unsurprising that the proponents of competing economic and political ideologies took up arms. While, broadly speaking, capitalists won the economic battle and democrats the political one, many of the cultural fights were won by Marxists, communists, and socialists. Traditionally, within these three related ideologies, there have been two distinct roads of reasoning about how best to approach ‘remaking’ society: 1) spread privilege (i.e., raise those at the bottom up to the top), and 2) rip it all up and begin again. Culturally, one of the ideologies, ‘rip it all up’, remains prevalent today, while the other, ‘spread privilege’, remains less so.

It is the ubiquity of the ‘rip it all up’ ideology that has led to the problems within education. Rather than spreading privilege, those who advocate progressive teaching and radical alterations to the curriculum see our system of education (in both its method and content) as much like some invisible scaffolding around Buckingham Palace: a sneaky instrument designed by the ruling elite to support and maintain the structures that keep them in power, and to covertly foreground ‘their’ culture at the expense of alternatives.

This idea, coalescing with many other post WWII events (the miners strikes; the decline, and subsequent unease about, empire; the recent banking crisis), has helped to create a narrative in which the poor and marginalised continue to be exploited by the powerful. And there is truth in that narrative. A lot of truth. But let’s not get distracted by large-scale sociological narratives. Let our eyes stay firmly fixed on the topic at hand: education. Because if the ‘rip it all up’ solution is to work, it must be implemented at a societal level, not an educational one; society must be dismantled and fundamentally redesigned, from the bottom up, and divested of its centuries-old power structures (which will get replaced with new ones).

If we assume that this is not going to occur imminently, then, just as removing only a staircase won’t bring down a house, ripping up the education system alone won’t change society. In fact, progressive education is actually exacerbating the problems its proponents want to eradicate, because, like a house without any stairs, access to the top is denied. Many of the ideas promoted by progressives actually work to prevent the poorest and most marginalised from achieving academically (and thus economically and politically), by denying them access to the knowledge of the powerful. Thus the knowledge gap between the poor and the powerful increases.

This leaves us with the ‘spread privilege’ solution. Unless remaking society in its totality, this is bound to be more successful, because it takes account of society as it is, rather than as a multitude of possibilities that some might wish it to be. It aims to provide the poorest pupils with the same knowledge and skills as their richer counterparts, so that they might also gain access to the firmaments of power.

But what about the accusation that spreading privilege simply maintains power structures? Well, as we have just seen, it actually disseminates power amongst the populace. And, in the final analysis, is it the structures of power themselves that are the problem, or the marshals at the bottom saying only certain pupils may climb them?

“Ah yes,” I hear you retort, “but the ‘spread privilege’ solution values the culture of the ‘dead white male’ above all others.”

The term notwithstanding, there is surely some truth in this. But first, let’s interrogate the term. The word ‘dead’ is redundant here. Realistically, education can only study things that have already happened, and thus, since it is mostly concerned with the past, most of its protagonists are likely to be dead. A more useful term would be ‘privileged, white males’. This is important to note, not only for accuracy, but also because it also brings into the spotlight an underlying assumption held by some of those who use the term; they believe the past is unimportant. In a sense, this is the nadir of progressivism: Forget the past! It’s all about progress! Forward, march!

But this raises a question: if we don’t teach the past, what do we teach? The future? How can we? We can’t. Of course we can’t, at least not in any meaningful way. So, if we cannot teach what has not yet happened, what are we left with? Nothing perhaps. Or perhaps we are left teaching something more sinister: how the future should be. Immediately, this suggests ideas of Orwellian thought crime. Teaching how the world ‘should’ be, rather than how it is, or has been, is the very aim of many a book burning, totalitarian despot who is ushering in Year Zero.

Tell me I’m out-of-date, but it seems to me that that this is not a particularly progressive state of affairs. Now obviously, I’m not claiming that there are legions and hordes out there who actually want to use our education system to enact an Orwellian future. But if we refuse to teach what has happened in the past, and in a truthful way, then the education we provide will become a values-based one, and teaching a vehicle for people who wish to promote a vision of how they would like society to be. And what is that if not naked political indoctrination?

(It may be argued that I myself am putting forward a political argument here, which, of course, I am. But I contain my argument within the realm of the education system; I am arguing that the education system should provide all pupils with what I believe is a good education. To my mind, this is an argument qualitatively different from one that posits using the education system as a proxy for wider political goals.)

I should also recognise that the phrase ‘dead white male’ is a play on a secondary meaning of ‘dead’, as in ‘very’. To spread privilege means to teach a curriculum that is very white and very male, so the argument goes. The argument is broadly correct. And the reason for this is that Western history has been both very white and very male. So we have a problem because, as we have just discovered, essentially, we are always teaching history. But let’s be clear: this does not mean we must rush off to read Mein Kampf or endorse a world in which white males hold the vast majority of power. Nor does it preclude us from critiquing societies that are based on any such or similar principles, first and foremost our own. But it does mean that if we are to attempt to teach the best that has been said, thought, and done, in order to build a fairer society, a society in which the poor can compete with the privileged, then the curriculum will inevitably be skewed towards that which has been said, thought, and done by privileged, white males. Again, this is regrettable, but we teach it not because we want to endorse that world-view, but because, like parrots perched atop pens of parakeets, privileged, white males were, for a long time, the only ones able to talk and act freely.

Crucially, while a high-quality curriculum will be skewed in its content, its protagonists will not be privileged, white males exclusively, nor will it promote white-only/male-only privilege as an ideal. A unit on the slave trade, for example, must include the voices of the slaves and should value them above both the voices of slaveholders (obviously), and, in my view, the voices of white abolitionists; ultimately, any unit on the slave trade that omits to study Toussaint L’Ouverture is not a unit of study at all. Similarly, a chronological study of English literature should see a plethora female writers emerge during the 18th and 19th centuries, and, appearing after WWII, there should be working class novelists and post-colonial writers, such as Alan Sillitoe and Chinua Achebe. These are but three examples; their are, of course, many others. But organised like this, the curriculum demonstrates to pupils the influence that power structures have had over time and that is a fact that we should not hide. Truly, it is important that this fact is taught in a meaningful way, and it is the job of the teacher to mediate the fact with contemporary attitudes towards it.

While ideas and attitudes have changed significantly over the past 100 years or so, and will no doubt continue to do so, we must remember that we can’t change the past to suit our aims for the present. Indeed, we must not learn only from the best of our words, but also from the worst of our deeds. So unless we would rather rip up society and start all over again, we must have a curriculum that aims to teach the best that has been said, thought, and done, and this means recognising and critiquing the fact that power and opportunity have been skewed towards privileged, white males. And although it might seem paradoxical, perverse even, by providing our poorest and most marginalised pupils with access to this knowledge, it means our future will be more diverse. And really, isn’t that what we’re aiming for?

No teacher talk. No challenging texts. No knowledge. It’s as if we’ve designed our schools to keep the poor in poverty…

So I once had a child in my form who was a real pain in the ass. A real pain in the ass. Everyday: “Raymond, put your food away”; “Where’s your tie? Your lanyard?”; “Raymond, I’ve just asked you to tuck your shirt in”; “Watch your language”; “Raymond, can you put your phone away, please? Raymond, put your phone away. Raymond. I won’t tell you again. Put it away.” Et cetera, et cetera.

But for all that, we got on well. We fell out a lot, but we got on. For example, he was internally excluded multiple times for swearing at me, but when I accidentally left my classroom door wide open and my phone on the table, he sat beside the phone and “protected” it until I returned. “Sir,” he said. “You’re such a beg. You left the door right open. Any crack-head could have come in and nicked your phone if I didn’t  of sat here.”

I paused and smiled at him. “Thank you, Raymond,” I said. “But now put your own phone away.”

He smiled.

From time-to-time, I still think of Raymond. I think of how he couldn’t string a sentence together and yet occasionally said something so insightful it would altogether halt me. But I try not to think of these things. They make me angry. I’m angry because if things had been different for Raymond, if he were from the other side of the tracks and had gone to a prep school, then he could have gone to Eton. And if he had gone to Eton then he could have gone to Oxbridge. I’m angry because, while there are complex social issues at play, I don’t believe that social issues or the divide between private and state schools explains how a gap so large, between hardly being able to construct a sentence and going to Oxford, can form.

It’s well established that by comparison to those born in relative prosperity, children who grow up in poverty generally have a vastly reduced vocabulary. By some measures, at age twenty-four months they are already six months behind in terms of vocabulary and language understanding, and have heard thirty-million(!) fewer words by age three. Considered in light of these statistics, the stigma that still exists around both “teacher-talk” and challenging literature seems not only misguided but an outright outrage. It damages children like Raymond. 

If we are to improve the vocabulary and language skills of our most disadvantaged pupils, if we truly want to close the attainment gap between rich and poor, then we need to address the issues that are within our power as teachers to address.  We cannot simply bemoan issues that are outside our sphere of influence, such as government policy, structural power in society, or lack of parental enthusiasm for education. I’m not denying these things exist. I’m saying that, as things stand, we  each have but one poxy vote with which to change them. And though wealth and vocabulary are correlated, income does not determine the breadth of a person’s vocabulary.

To broaden the vocabulary of our pupils, we must teach vocabulary, ambitious vocabulary, explicitly. But we must also allow our pupils to hear us talking, to hear the extent of our own vocabularies. And since most teachers possess a relatively broad vocabulary, it is madness—madness—to deny children access to our personal word banks as though they are as personal and precious as our piggy banks. I have written before about the remarkable stickability of vocabulary when compared to other knowledge, so I won’t repeat myself here, but it is worth restating that the discomfort that exists around teacher talk is actively harming the children we teach.

To illustrate, we’ll compare a teacher explanation and a treasure-hunt activity. Let’s say the treasure hunt takes ten minutes to complete, as children roam around the classroom finding the information that’s been hidden (hidden!) from them. Inside an envelope they will discover a short piece of information written in dumbed-down language, because each pupil has to read it independently and it is highly unrealistic for the teacher to individually check everyone’s comprehension. Now, let’s consider all that could have been achieved in ten minutes of teacher-talk: a clear explanation employing rich language, complex words defined and then clarified with examples, and all before some quick whole-class AFL is used to check for understanding and clear up any misconceptions. Just consider the difference in total word-exposure that the children in each example have been exposed to and then multiply that over an entire school career. Tens of millions of words, I would guess.

To compound matters, once we have denied them access to our own vocabularies, we deny them access to the vocabularies of our great writers, by studying texts that pupils can “relate” to. Some advocate this because they worry about fostering a love of literature in our young people. I sympathise with the concern and have no problem with the principle. But you have to ask yourself, what, exactly, are you fostering, and what, exactly, are you getting paid for, if all you are doing is providing pupils with a book that they will love regardless? Because anyone can do that. Literally any mug with a library card can say to a child: “Pick whatever you want, mate.” The challenge is to foster a love of great literature in children by illuminating the words and ideas that our greatest writers have left behind. That’s where, as English teachers, we earn our money. And it is with these texts that a child’s vocabulary really develops. It is here they are exposed to a plethora so-called Tier-2 words; words, such as “plethora”, that are found in print but mostly absent from oral language, and where the majority of discrepancy exists between children from poverty and prosperity.

(As an English teacher, I’m primarily interested in literature. However, in other subjects too, surely pupils should be reading quality material in every lesson and familiarising themselves with the nomenclature?)

Of course, more ideal would be to prevent the gap opening in the first place. This is why I think it would make more sense to direct the majority of Pupil Premium funds towards EYFS and infants. But that is perhaps a whole other blog, by someone more knowledge in EYFS and primary education than I. (And yes, I think that is the march of secondary Headteachers and their Business Managers I hear, as they line up to stone me for suggesting yet more money is taken from their budgets.)

More controversial still, are ideas around cultural literacy. (For expedience, let’s put asside the knowledge vs skills debate.) As soon as one accepts that our first responsibility as teachers is to teach “stuff” to the charges in our care, a culture war erupts centering upon who gets to decide curriculum content. During his excellent (seriously, seriously excellent) presentation at yesterday’s #REdRugby, Chris Peirce commented (words to the effect of): “I think it’s useful for children first to have an understanding of the culture they’re part of.” This prompted a couple of responses from other members of the audience, with one even commenting that she would be sending her own child to his school in September, and as such would be able to keep an eye on things herself, which I thought was unnecessarily antagonistic.

As it happens, I agree with Chris’s position. I contend that, if a person doesn’t have access to a rather large and complex web of metaphors, symbols, and references from their own culture the culture in which they live (please note the critical difference there), they are excluded from opportunities within that culture. Ultimately, being unable to navigate the warp and woof of their surrounding culture leaves people in a state of alienation. And, like it or not, in every region of our planet there is a dominant culture that prevails. People need access to the culture of the place that they inhabit in order to participate in society. I, for example, have fairly decent knowledge of communist cinema during 1960s Hungary. While this is quite nice, it serves me little to no purpose on a day-to-day basis. Were I a film scholar, it would be useful. But I’m not, so it isn’t. Better, say, that I have a decent understanding of the Mary Celeste. Why the Mary Celeste? Well let’s have a look at a headline from today’s Sunday Times:


Without an understanding the Mary Celeste, a reader of this text misses most of the meaning in the headline. But knowledge of the Mary Celeste is not the only knowledge a resident of Britain needs to unlock meaning here; there is other cultural knowledge and concepts that must be recognised and understood in the forty-or-so words: paradox, that Theresa May is the current British prime minister, that in Britain political mandate is granted by a general election, what a general election is, the result of the recent general election, and what Brexit is.

Let’s investigate another:


Here, readers need to be aware of the different cultural stereotypes that are associated with people of old and new money. They need to be au fait with ideas about the corrupting influence of money, and how, in Britain, these are overtly connected with a person’s class. They need to know what a hereditary peer is, and to understand that they will require a fairly well-developed understanding of how the Palace of Westminster operates. They will  also need to understand the stereotypes associated with hereditary peers, in order to understand the reference to his being “157”, as well as stereotypes around how they behave in parliament, if they are to infer what Liddle is implying when he says: “I’m not sure he knew who he was, or what he was supposed to be doing.”

They will need to know all this and have a developed sense of irony, if they are to understand that Liddle is not, in fact, saying the peer was a nice chap when he says, “seemed a nice enough chap” but, rather, is affecting the assuredly nonchalant language of those from “old money”. However, to pick this up, it’s not enough to simply know what irony is. No, the reader must understand the particular linguistic-tics of those from old money, as well as stereotypes about their attitudes.

Last but not least, they need to take all this information and connect it to the reference to “old money” in the headline. So, as we can see, quite a lot is going on, and if one is to understand it, one must understand the minutiae of the surrounding culture.

Call me old-fashioned, but I think our children should be able to read the newspaper when they leave school. Many, perhaps even most, wouldn’t be able to extrapolate all the meaning from the examples above. If pupils are leaving school unable to understand the references in two very short extracts, which I found in less than a minute or so’s searching through today’s paper, then we have a problem. It is for this reason that a country’s schools should foreground it’s “home” cultural knowledge; it grants access and cultural capital to those who wouldn’t otherwise would possess it. Incidentally, this is particularly vital for children who are first-generation immigrants, who have a triple-lock to overcome: they have comparatively limited understanding of the language; their parents’ cultural  literacy in the new country is likely to be highly limited, so they are not exposed to it at home; and they often find themselves in inner-city schools, where ingrained attitudes suggesting that certain knowledge, or culture, is (not) for certain people often still prevail.

Some people believe it is elitist to foreground the teaching of particular knowledge and culture, but, in a wonderfully succinct tweet, Rebecca Foster exposed the fallacy of this position. She said: “I think it’s elitist NOT to teach challenging texts to certain groups of students.” I’ve already addressed the issue of challenging texts, but there is a broader truth implied by Rebecca’s words, and it comes down to the difference between “is” and “ought”. While no one culture is objectively better than another, all people in society ought to have access to the cultural knowledge that will allow them to be socially mobile, should they wish to be; elitism is not about the content of but access to that culture. The snob is not the man who asserts we should teach Latin, but the man contends Latin is not for those he considers socially inferior. If you’re arguing that certain knowledge isn’t for certain children, then take a look in the mirror, because you are the snob.

At KS3 especially, I believe we need to conceive of ourselves as teachers of culture, as well as teachers of our subject. Even today, I have basically no scientific knowledge. I’m embarassed to admit it, but I could not tell you for sure what Galileo (something to do with telescopes?) or Newton (electricity?) did, just that they are important. Until fairly recently, I knew basically nothing about the ancient Greeks and Romans, actually nothing about art or art history, and felt entirely like a philistine if I got dragged into an art gallery. So I’d walk around gibbering about how boring and rubbish I thought it all was, as a cover for my ignorance (and I’m sure most who are reading this can easilly bring to mind a raft of pupils who blanket their ignorance with similar behaviour in the classroom). And all this despite having a first-class degree in English! Bizarrely, all this knowledge is useful to me as an English teacher, for, in an English classroom, any subject can become relevant at a moment’s notice (I think it was David Didau who said at #REdRugby yesterday that knowledge is “Velcro”, ie it sticks to other knowledge). But as an adult, knowing where to look and what to read can be tricky. It’s far better to taught it by an expert teacher at school.