John Bald: Williamson is right. Pupils should sit in rows facing the teacher.

1 Jul

John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Vice President of the Conservative Education Society.

Gavin Williamson’s statement that school pupils should sit in rows facing the teacher and pay attention, was predictably denounced by progressives as ill-informed, authoritarian, and near-fascist. Unfortunately for those who think he should be accountable to Twitter rather than Parliament, his view is correct, and supported not only by the results of schools such as West London Free, Michaela, and the best academies, but by the most recent evidence on the way the brain forms the neural networks that embody learning. His point about coronavirus spreading more easily if children sit facing each other is important in current circumstances, but the evidence on concentration and learning is permanent, and validates the reforms to teaching and learning made by headteachers and Conservative ministers since the opening of Mossbourne in 2005.

The most important source is the recent book How We Learn, by Professor Stanislas Dehaene, director of cognitive neuroimaging at the French national health and scientific research institute INSERM. Dehaene demonstrates by experiment that, from babyhood, we form working views and hypotheses about the world, which we modify when we encounter something that does not fit them. This continues throughout life, and is consistent with much scientific activity as discussed in Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. An example is Galileo’s discovery of the movement of Jupiter’s moons, which was inconsistent with the notion that the universe revolved round the earth. Dehaene sees the same process as the key to developing artificial intelligence, where computers are turned in on themselves to produce the same outcome, albeit less efficiently.

I’ve reviewed the book in detail here, and checked the review with the author. Salient points are his endorsement of phonics as the basis of teaching reading in French as well as English – to establish the alphabetic principle, which is then modified to take account of the respective variations in each language – and the effect of focus and concentration on the development of neural networks. We need, he says, to teach children to pay close attention to the teacher, not to restore the former “magisterial” style, where the teacher simply dictated and pupils copied, but to stimulate brain activity and hence learning. This is what the schools mentioned above set out to do, and the reason why their results have shot up. For the Secretary of State to recommend that others adopt this successful approach is not ideology, but common sense. The progressive “blob”, that still dominates teacher training in most – not quite all – universities does its best to ignore brain research, as it does not fit their goal of using education as a means of reshaping society, beginning with mixed-ability teaching. They would do better to put the evidence of brain research at the heart of their curriculum, and to investigate its application in each subject.

When this happens, the outcome is a happy and successful learning community in which issues of racism do not arise because the atmosphere of shared purpose and teamwork leaves no room for them.

As Katharine Birbalsingh put it on Any Questions:

“You should have seen my teachers on Monday. They were so thrilled. Everyone was beaming… One child who never smiles, and he beamed at me. We were all so excited to be back, and it is, it is lovely to be in school….”

Michaela staff had been working flat out during lockdown, with Zoom lessons – NEU please note – and other online content, but this was not an adequate substitute for school. “Children,” she said, “build a relationship with their teacher, that they have over the year, and that relationship is so important to that child, working hard and delivering for their teacher.”

This is also her solution to the issue of race. Britain, she says has perhaps only Canada as a competitor when it comes to “the best country in the world to live in with regard to race,” and this is one theme of her latest book, “The Power of Culture”. Children at Michaela sing patriotic songs and recite poems precisely to emphasise their full and active membership of society, in direct opposition to current campaigns that present them as victims. In the ten years since she stood up at our Conference and told the truth about the disintegration of education in London schools, Birbalsingh has endured marginalisation and insult – “Coconut” perhaps the most predictable – and has felt that she was swimming upstream. She is now so obviously correct that we may, to mix a metaphor, see the tide beginning to turn.

A footnote on the Huffington Post’s publication of a leaked draft of the DfE’s plans for September, including an apparent proposal to stop teaching some subjects. This is not the way to proceed. Focusing only on English, maths, and science will produce a boring grind, and not only for children whose interests lie in other directions. A better approach, as exemplified in Alex Quigley’s books, Closing the Vocabulary Gap and Closing the Reading Gap, is to build literacy and clear thinking into everything a school does, maximising brain activity and using school to build up the thinking power that highly educated parents develop in their children from birth. Schools that do this – see this 2005 report on Gateway School, Marylebone – close the gap. Those that don’t, perpetuate it.