Volume 1 The Report
Volume 1 (complete)
Volume 2 Research and Surveys
Volume 2 (complete)
written in 1987 on Plowden's twentieth anniversary.
AH Halsey and Kathy Sylva
Change and Continuity in the Primary School: the research evidence
© Copyright 1987 Carfax Publishing
Page numbers are from the journal.
MAURICE GALTON is a former Dean of Education at Leicester and is now Visiting Professor at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. He began his research in primary classrooms in the early 1970s with the Observational and Classroom Learning Evaluation (Oracle) Project, repeated this study two decades later, and published the findings in Inside the Primary Classroom: 20 Years On in 1999. He is also known for his work on transfer and is currently directing research into grouping and group work.
He can be contacted by email.
Change and Continuity in the Primary School: the research evidence
ABSTRACT The period since the publication of the Plowden Report has seen considerable growth in the study of teaching methods in the primary school, mainly through the use of systematic observation techniques. This article reviews the findings of one of the major projects, the Oracle project (Observational Research and Classroom Learning Evaluation) which was carried out during a five year period beginning in 1975. The evidence collected in this study, which is supported by more recent work, suggests that the kinds of practice endorsed in the Plowden Report were only partially implemented. Most of the changes which have been carried out concerned the organisational structure of the classroom and have had far less to do with the curriculum content and the teaching and learning processes. At one level, therefore, there exists uniformity and continuity while at the other, considerable discontinuity because of the ways in which different schools interpret ideas about informal approaches to teaching.
Various explanations for these discontinuities are explored but rejected on the grounds that they place too much emphasis on those aspects of the teaching process which operate at the strategic level. Much more important are the tactical decisions which take place during the course of the lesson. These arise largely because of pressures and stresses within the participants (both teachers and pupils) and give rise to considerable covert bargaining as teachers try to find a balance between the imposition of authority at one extreme and pupil autonomy at the other.
This suggests the need to redefine progressive practice which allows 'open' negotiations to take place both about pupil learning and about pupil behaviour. Various ways of bringing about these changes are suggested.
Since the publication of the Plowden Report in 1967, the study of teaching, based upon empirical investigations of classroom practice, has been one of the major growth areas in educational research. Most of the British studies, particularly those using 'direct' or systematic observation as the major research technique, have been conducted in primary classrooms (Galton 1979; Hargreaves 1980). Although the reasons for this focus on primary teaching were largely pragmatic (with one teacher per class it was easier and cheaper to obtain a reasonable number of observations), undoubtedly the controversies which developed in the wake of the publication of the Plowden Report stimulated and to a certain extent directed attention to a number of issues related to teaching methods in informally organised classrooms. Chief amongst these issues was the shift towards individualisation of the learning process and the change in organisational structure of the classroom which could enable a teacher to achieve this objective. While the Report never completely clarified the distinction between individual work
and individual attention (in the former children engage in different tasks while in the latter they all work on the same task but interact with the teacher on a one-to-one rather than a whole class basis) it is clear that individualisation was largely seen as a combination of both approaches. The other important issue to engage the attention of researchers was the nature of these one-to-one interactions which according to Plowden should emphasise children finding out rather than being told, so that the child was 'an agent of his own learning' (paragraph 529). This Plowden-style classroom is typified by the following description from a small country school where, according to the teacher:
I know all my twenty children as individuals. Of course, there are times when we come together and share activities like music making, drama, or perhaps just quietly listening to a story. But in basic work I give twenty different lessons. The children work individually, each at their own pace, and I circulate among them, helping, guiding and correcting. Always I have the particular needs of a child in mind. Sometimes the children help each other. The juniors who are fluent readers might hear the infants who are at a stage of needing a lot of practice. Class lessons? They just wouldn't work ... I never teach a class. I teach children.
While in a two-form entry junior urban school, the teacher argued that with 42 children in the class:
The great implication for me is that class lessons in the basic skills would be poor lessons. My teaching would be directed at the middle of the class. Therefore for basic work, at least, I break the class down into three or four groups. In addition, at the extremes of ability, the groups themselves break down into individuals ... The composition of the groups varies for different subjects and the children move from group to group as time goes on. I have found it dangerously easy to allow the groups to harden into permanencies ... To avoid this, I often make a fresh start to the grouping when a new field of work is begun. There has to be continual opportunities for me to adjust my teaching to the varying rates of children's development.
These descriptions drawn from the West Riding were echoed by accounts of schools in other pioneering areas with a national reputation for progressivism, such as Oxfordshire and Leicestershire. The beginning of the 1970s also saw a number of enthusiastic accounts of 'the primary school revolution' (Rogers 1970; Silberman 1970). As Simon (1981) has observed, when commenting upon these descriptions of primary practice in the early 1960s, it is difficult to make any objective assessment of how typical these descriptions were of primary classrooms up and down the country. More importantly, such descriptions failed to make a key distinction between discussions of classroom practice at the strategic level, concerned largely with the teachers' intentions prior to the start of a lesson, and tactical decisions to do with what Bellack et al (1966) have referred to as the 'moments of teaching', the minute by minute occurrences throughout a lesson. Classroom researchers have throughout the last decade provided a detailed picture of the range of strategies and tactics used in British primary classrooms and have identified important relationships between these two pedagogic levels on which the teacher operates. Such evidence supports the view that
the revolution was less revolutionary than the critics implied, so that many of the prescriptions set out in the Plowden Report have yet to be adequately tested in practice.
CLASSROOM RESEARCH IN BRITAIN, 1970-1976
Research into teaching has increasingly exposed the wide 'perception gap' between the teacher's and the researcher's view of classroom events. Amongst this research are studies of the primary school classroom carried out in the early seventies using the techniques of questionnaire and interview. The first of these published in 1972 covered a ten per cent sample of teachers in two local authorities in the Midlands (Bealing 1972). Although her survey showed that the traditional classroom layout with its rows of desks and static children had been replaced by children sitting in groups and that classes were overwhelmingly mixed ability in terms of achievement, this grouping strategy was often used to stream pupils within the class.
Whole-class teaching was still quite widely used for all subjects except reading, although the accent was on individual work - as recommended in the Plowden Report. Bealing, however, concluded that despite these relatively informal classroom layouts there was much evidence of tight control in such matters as where the children sat and whether pupils were allowed to choose or organise their own activities.
Other surveys have confirmed these earlier findings. Bennett (1976) suggested that only a small proportion of teachers surveyed could be classed as 'informal' or 'progressive'. Although the teachers claimed that the children worked either individually or in groups for eighty per cent of the time, more than three quarters of all work was teacher-directed. Out of 25 hours of teaching over 15 were devoted to academic subjects including number work, English and reading, with very little emphasis on integrated approaches in areas such as environmental science and social studies. The sample was drawn entirely from the North-East of England but similar findings were obtained in Nottinghamshire by Bassey (1978) in his survey of 900 primary school teachers.
These surveys show that in line with the Plowden recommendations, the shift towards individualisation of children's work was, for the most part, complete by the mid-1970s. These studies also suggest that some of the other recommendations emanating from Plowden had received very little support. Bennett's and Bassey's results, in particular, demonstrated that the major part of the primary curriculum was still taken up with basic skills. Both researchers suggested that the enquiry approach, although approved of by teachers, was not often used. For the most part the work remained strongly teacher-directed and controlled with the emphasis on the products rather than the processes of learning. Eight out of ten teachers in the Bennett survey, for example, required children to learn their tables by heart.
Questioning teachers by survey, however, cannot provide reliable information about tactics: the events in the classroom once teaching has commenced. A number of studies, notably that of the Ford Teaching Project, demonstrated at the beginning of the seventies the existence of a 'perception gap' in teaching (Elliott 1976). Teachers tended to perceive classroom activity in accordance with their aims rather than their practice, so that their descriptions of what takes place in a classroom were often at variance with those of outside observers. For this reason researchers refined their observation techniques to study the extent to which the informality of seating arrangements was matched by informal approaches in teaching.
The Oracle (Observational Research and Classroom Learning Evaluation) Project 1975-80
During the late 1970s the first large-scale observational study of primary children and their teachers was carried out at the University of Leicester. In three local authorities, all with a strong commitment to comprehensive education, over a hundred teachers and their pupils were observed for three days each term, each year from 1976 to 79, using two observation schedules (Boydell 1974 1975). Children were also tested annually on basic skills and in addition a number of exercises designed to assess certain qualities associated with 'independent study' were examined. In the third year children were observed when they transferred out of their primary school into the next stage of education which in some cases was a middle and in others a secondary school. The results are too numerous to describe in detail here but are set out in four volumes (Galton et al 1980, Galton and Simon 1980, Simon and Willcocks 1981, Galton and Willcocks 1983).
The more important findings, relevant to the themes of this paper, are summarised below.
1. Instruction mainly took place between a teacher and an individual child. Managing this situation with upwards of thirty children in a class presented considerable problems of organisation for teachers who were thus under continuous pressure. They mainly coped by setting relatively undemanding tasks, keeping children occupied until they could find time to help them. Although children were, for the most part, seated in groups of five or six, they worked as individuals and there was little evidence of collaborative work in those groups where children worked together on a common task.
2. The nature of the interactions was overwhelmingly managerial and didactic in these individualised settings, despite many teachers' claims that they favoured an enquiry based approach. More importantly little feedback about work was given. Children with incorrect answers were generally sent back with the instruction 'to do it again'. Because of this lack of discussion about work, particularly work where the children had got a correct answer but had used an inappropriate method, the match between the pupil's developmental level and the task set was often poor. The same effect was noticed by Her Majesty's Inspectors in the 1978 survey (HMI 1978) and by Bennett and Desforges (1984).
3. Observation also highlighted large discrepancies between the curriculum strategies deployed by schools or by class teachers in the form of curriculum guidelines or class timetables and the manner in which the curriculum operated at the tactical level. A more recent study of the primary curriculum, undertaken at the University of Leicester, has found that there exist considerable variations in practice between local authorities, between schools within local authorities and between classes within schools. In one local authority, for example, it was found that the total teaching time devoted to all subjects varied by as much as one day per week across the sample of schools studied. Teachers tend to tolerate less interruption when working with children in certain subject areas so that the curriculum on paper often does not match closely the curriculum as taught by the teacher. Even then there are considerable variations between the amount of time on which different pupils engage in their curriculum task. Similar findings concerning the curriculum time allocated by teachers and the proportion of that time in which the pupils engage on tasks associated with certain curriculum subjects have been obtained in American studies (Denham and Lieberman 1980).
4. Different classroom settings appear to have a minimum effect on teaching style. The pattern of individualised working, described above, was much the same in the open plan areas and with classes where there were children of mixed age (vertical grouping). These findings are paralleled by Bennett's study of open plan classrooms (Bennett et al 1980). Class size, which varied from 25 to 38 pupils, had very little effect upon the style of instruction or the quantity of interaction received by pupils.
5. In contrast to Plowden's endorsement of group work, particularly for promoting enquiry and helping to stimulate thinking and communication skills, collaborative group work was a totally neglected art in most of the classrooms studied. While children were usually sat in groups there were very few cases where children were given the kind of work which required them to collaborate together and to work as a team. It was much more usual for children on a table to be working at a topic which required each pupil to make an individual contribution. Not surprisingly there was little conversation between pupils about work and many of these exchanges did not extend beyond one 25-second time unit. The majority of conversations which lasted longer were mostly sources of distraction.
6. Transfer tended to be a source of particular difficulty for many pupils. Earlier studies have all shown that although most pupils become anxious about the move away from the primary school, this anxiety is very short-lived and only about ten per cent of pupils remain disturbed after six weeks in the new school. While the Oracle research confirmed that this was so it also highlighted the difficulties which children experienced when adjusting to different teaching methods in different subjects. For forty per cent of the pupils this was reflected in their performance on the tests of mathematics and English where they did less well (in absolute terms) than in their last year in the primary school. The hiatus in progress was accompanied by a decrease in motivation and a decline in standards of behaviour that paralleled the anti-school feelings described in studies of deviant pupils at the top age range of the secondary school. This behaviour was particularly noticeable in mathematics where eighty per cent of the pupils adopted a strategy of working termed easy riding. Pupils when instructed to complete a worksheet or a set of examples from a mathematics text book gave the appearance of working but did so as slowly as possible even when engaged in the most mundane tasks such as drawing a margin or finding a page in the book. In classes where individualised work was more typical, another strategy adopted was that of intermittent working where the pupils worked at the task when the teacher's eye was upon them but then began other conversations once the teacher was engaged elsewhere. Both types of pupils appear to refuse to do more than the minimum of work required. This was in contrast to a group of strongly motivated 'academic' pupils who were hard grinders completing the work as quickly as possible, making life stressful for teachers who were constantly trying to slow down these fast workers, while exhorting the slower ones to speed up. In practice, therefore, the teaching seemed to be focused on the performance of the 'middle range' of pupils in much the same way as with the earlier class approach.
It would seem, therefore, that although there had been considerable change in the organisational patterns in the primary schools, within that framework the teaching emphasis had hardly changed. Learning was largely controlled by the teacher. Children were talked 'at' rather than talked 'with' and the focus of the teacher's attention was mainly on the traditional areas of reading, writing and computation. Art and topic work received less teacher direction not because it was in accord with the Plowden
philosophy but because painting was a task which could occupy the children's attention, leaving the teacher free to concentrate on the 'basic skills'.
Despite this research evidence, secondary schools have continued to believe the rhetoric concerning primary teaching methods so that the emphasis in the first year after transfer has been on revision of these 'basics' while taking it for granted that pupils were highly proficient in the range of skills required to pursue independent studies. After transfer pupils were assumed to know how to use a book reference but were re-taught how to add, subtract and divide. The more able pupils became bored and disillusioned while the slow learners were often confused by having to learn new methods and new terminology. In secondary schools, pupils do not 'take away' they 'subtract'.
EXPLANATIONS OF INCONSISTENCIES IN PRIMARY PRACTICE
In the period since the completion of the Oracle research, other studies have highlighted similar practices in both infant and junior classrooms. The work of Southgate et al (1981), for example, illustrates the same kinds of organisational problems when teaching reading in the infant classroom with teachers unable to give a particular pupil their attention without having to deal with continued interruptions by the remainder of the class. Bennett and Desforges (1984) also identify the problem of 'teaching to the mean' in their finding that the tasks set to the 'more able' children were often too easy while those given to 'slow learners' were generally too difficult. They also, by implication, confirm the Oracle finding that teachers are unable to devote sufficient time to extend the pupils' thinking, particularly by providing adequate feedback about the work that children have completed. In the classes studied by Bennett and Desforges, most of the tasks set were repetitive practice ones. The authors conclude that
The philosophy of individualised instruction has informed the education of young children for many years. We do not doubt the validity of this, but, like all ideals, it is easier to theorise about than practise. Nevertheless, teachers of this age group have made significant steps towards its successful implementation. Learning environments have been created which are characterised by good social relationships, expert utilisation of resources, happy and industrious pupils. What this study has revealed is that a number of cognitive aspects of this environment appear to have been hidden from the teachers.
(Bennett and Desforges, 1984, p. 221)
Among those who support these ideals, the blame for the divergence between theory and classroom practice in the primary school is largely accounted for by external pressures, emanating from government policy which through media pressure, in the wake of the student riots in the late sixties, saw even the Labour Government of James Callaghan reneging on the principles underpinning the commitment to a comprehensive system of education. High points in this retreat from progressive approaches to teaching and learning were the publications of the Black Papers, the William Tyndale affair and the setting up of the Centre for Policy Research by leading right wing Conservatives, including the present Prime Minister [Margaret Thatcher] and the former Education Secretary, Sir Keith Joseph. Writers such as Kelly (1983) see the demands for increased
teacher accountability, 'for the monitoring of standards and for greater public control of the curriculum' as the main reasons for the shift in emphasis 'towards the teaching of subject content as justifiable in itself rather than in relation to its contribution to growth and development of pupils and teaching of basic skills in isolation from their wider educational context. 'In short', Kelly concludes, 'the needs of society are being held to take precedence over the needs of pupils, so that a totally different philosophy is being foisted upon the primary school' (Kelly 1983, p. 18). Such views are supported by the research of Barker Lunn (1982, 1984) who claims to see a return to various forms of streaming in the larger remaining primary schools when comparing her recent data with those obtained over a decade earlier (Barker Lunn 1970).
The logic of such views is, therefore, that within the primary curriculum there exist, 'cycles of fashion' derived, on the one hand, from the deep-rooted elementary school tradition, which according to Cohen and Cohen (1986), 'with typical nineteenth-century administrative thoroughness and efficiency, produced a pedagogical system of class teaching allied to a curriculum geared largely to utilitarian preoccupation with skills of literacy and numeracy' and on the other the developmental tradition, 'the fruit of those seeds sown much earlier by theorists such as Rousseau, Froebel, Montessori and Dewey ... that has been given the official sanction not only of the Hadow Report (1931) but also ... of Plowden' (Kelly 1983, p. 10). Within this 'see-saw' environment, change becomes difficult if not impossible. The radical teachers of the sixties were held back by the conservative views of their headteachers. By the time these teachers had gained power and responsibility in the mid-seventies, schools were recruiting a new group of young teachers who, faced by the country's economic decline, had become less sympathetic to the ideals set out in Plowden and were once again more concerned with the instrumental function of the educational process.
Within this structure, teaching is primarily a 'coping activity' where, according to Hargreaves (1978), 'teaching styles are developed only in so far as they enable successful coping with experience constraint'. In addition to the pressure exerted by society through central and local Government interference and parental aspirations, there are also institutional constraints to do with buildings and resources. Hargreaves views the teacher as one who tries, as far as possible, to 'educate and relate to children in the spirit of liberal individualism' while at the same time preparing children for 'the reality of the society in which they will one day live and work'. Thus, for example, Hargreaves sees the switch away from 'discovery methods', recommended by Plowden, to heavily 'guided' versions as the teacher's attempt to ensure that the spirit of the progressive philosophy is maintained while, at the same time, a suitable product is available for inspection by parents and local authority inspectors. Other writers are not so charitable and see the teacher as an agent of a socially divisive, highly stratified society where children are taught to respond to various techniques of social control so that those who do less well by the system do not seek to change it, thus enabling society to reproduce itself from one generation to the next.
Discontinuity in teaching is the result of each LEA enforcing different systems of accountability on their schools which restrict the headteacher's freedom to implement progressive practice. Within the school special circumstances may mean that teachers will be forced to devise a different set of 'coping strategies' so that as the pupils move from class to class they can experience inconsistency in what they are expected to know and the means by which they are expected to gain this knowledge.
A different explanation for the discontinuity between the theory and practice of progressive education is advanced by writers such as Richards (1982). Richards
deplores the laissez-faire approach to the primary curriculum which leaves all curriculum decisions (or non-decisions) in the hands of individual practitioners, operating in comparative isolation. Such an approach assumes 'a degree of individual self-sufficiency which could only be sustained if the task in question was simple, uncontentious, fully understood and self contained'. Far from seeing government involvement in the primary curriculum as an attempt to re-impose traditional practices, Richards sees the initiative as a much needed corrective and one which restores the 'professionalism' of the individual practitioner by allowing individuals to respond to the varying circumstances of their classrooms within a clearly defined curriculum structure. The government's role is to provide 'greater coordination (though not detailed control)' in setting out such a structure. For Richards, many of the changes in primary education have been the result of an enthusiastic response to various 'bandwagons' or the result of expediency. In neither case have the implications of such changes been fully worked out or understood.
Far from leading to all round improvements in practice this period of experimentation has therefore produced, at best, teaching which is 'occasionally exciting, usually competent in the so-called basics at least, but not infrequently mediocre or inadequate' (Alexander 1984).
REDEFINING PROGRESSIVE PRACTICE
While there are elements of truth to be found in the analysis of both Kelly and Richards, both sets of arguments appear too simplistic. Both writers and the groups that they represent appear to assume a direct relationship between a teacher's intentions and a teacher's action. For Kelly, the teacher's intentions are frustrated by external constraints and pressures. Decisions have to be taken which reduce the scope for action within the model of primary education being endorsed. In Richards's case the understanding of the model on which the intentions are fashioned varies considerably between schools and between teachers. Actions taken to implement the model are therefore largely idiosyncratic so that primary children receive different treatment at the hands of different teachers. These inconsistencies, resulting from this laissez-faire approach to curriculum development and teaching, have largely remained undetected because no proper form of accounting, based upon observation of practice, is employed by most schools.
However, the process of teaching is clearly a more complex activity than is implied by the above analyses. While teachers do make conscious decisions to cope with various factors which impinge on their teaching and these factors, to a large extent, dominate their thinking, such decisions are usually taken at a strategic level. They do not concern the minute by minute tactical exchanges which take place during the course of the lesson. These tactical engagements are largely unconscious and derive from the teachers' own personal needs, critically the need to preserve their image as 'a good teacher', one who can establish discipline and maintain a busy workmanlike atmosphere in the classroom. Thus question and answer sessions in which the teacher 'heavily guides' the discussion can be seen, not as Hargreaves (1978) suggests as the teacher's attempt to ensure that the child achieves an acceptable level of performance but rather as a way of reducing what Doyle (1979) defines as situations of 'high risk and ambiguity'. From past experience the teacher knows that such situations can lead to loss of control and disruption.
As Simon indicates in the evidence which he collected as part of the presentation to
the 1967 Plowden Committee (Forum 1966) the abandonment of whole-class teaching in favour of either individualised assignments or group tasks for children of similar abilities was largely a coping strategy designed to meet problems posed by the rapid move away from streaming as a result of the abolition of the eleven plus and the introduction of comprehensive education. It is doubtful if many teachers fully understand the principles behind this move to individualisation. In one sense, therefore, Plowden and progressive theory legitimated what at the time was seen as the only practical solution to the problem of 'mixed ability'. Hard pressed headteachers, for example, faced with questions from anxious parents about whether sons or daughters were being held back by the presence of slow learners in their class could point to the key paragraphs in the report which claimed that these able children would gain from working in such groups since they would 'make their meaning clear to themselves by having to explain it to others and gain some opportunities to teach as well as learn' (para. 758).
At the same time, the abolition of the eleven plus and the resulting strong tide of educational opinion against formal testing of any kind for children in the primary age range placed an increasing emphasis on teachers as 'professionals' expert in devising their own record-keeping systems. Teachers needed to reassure anxious parents that although children might be working within an integrated timetable the teacher still was able to determine whether they had done their computation and number work. Again Plowden specifically endorsed such approaches, arguing that 'although tests are useful, there is some danger of spending too much time on testing at the expense of teaching'. (Paragraph 422). Central to the justification of this position was the rejection of much of the empirical research on classroom teaching that questioned the ability of teachers to exercise this professionalism. For example, a headmaster, admittedly of a secondary school, could say about such studies that
Penetrating analysis of interactional processes in the classroom has nothing to offer to teachers who know when they are teaching effectively. Teachers have their own checks. General class response, individual pupil interest, the work pupils produce, the progress they make all indicate whether things are going well. By and large, teachers acquire their skills pragmatically. They learn to vary their approach to meet different types of problem.
Again, Spooner's view carries the same assumptions of a direct link between teacher's intentions and their actions. Thus, despite having contrary aims teachers continue to maintain tight control over pupils' learning. The emphasis in most classrooms on instructional and managerial interactions between the teacher and individual pupils was a clear feature of the Oracle study. It was most noticeable how static seat work (worksheets, colouring in pictures, etc.) increased with a corresponding decrease in practical activity whenever there were a sizeable minority of disruptive pupils present in the room. Other researchers have pointed to the same dilemma, arguing that it is unhelpful to describe the learning relationships between teachers and students in terms of distinctions between didactic and exploratory approaches to teaching, as in the Plowden Report, since 'a more fundamental dimension to this relationship is not so much the degree to which students are left to find their own solutions, but the extent to which they exert a control over their work,
the nature of the teacher's collaboration in this and the ways in which the students influence this collaboration'. (Rowlands, 1981)
While true, the emphasis on ways of learning which allow children to make choices not only about what they wish to do but also how they wish to do it begs the question of what kind of classroom climate will support and encourage this degree of independent learning by pupils. An area of research almost totally neglected has been the search for causes of the dependencies which most children so clearly manifest in primary classrooms, a dependency which makes it so stressful and impossible for one teacher to work the system of individual assignments with upward of thirty children. Children continually come out to have their books marked and to be credited with a tick. Children seem to prefer the less challenging assignments where it is easier to gain credit. Groups often fail to function collaboratively because the children seek the teacher's attention and then 'persuade' her to take over the discussion. Researchers such as Pollard (1985) provide good accounts of such covert negotiation and bargaining.
Interviews with children in the follow-up Oracle study Effective Group Work in the Primary Classroom suggest reasons for this dependency other than the more conventional one that young children become anxious when there is a lack of structure in the classroom and seek out the teacher's help for reassurance. Such an explanation seems too facile when faced with the behaviour of the easy riders and intermittent workers who sought at every opportunity to avoid completing the task set. They appeared to appreciate the structure provided by the teacher, not because it reduced their anxiety about what they were asked to do but because it made it easier to select an appropriate strategy for task avoidance. When teachers attempted to change the task structure and to introduce more challenge into the lesson the pupils became uncertain about how to manipulate the situation. They then began to test out the teacher in order to define their new limits of freedom in this novel situation. In many lessons observed during the Oracle studies, attempts by the teacher to introduce new routines were invariably accompanied by increased amounts of disruption as pupils renegotiated for a structure they could manipulate to their advantage.
Interviews with children have indicated that one of the main factors influencing these negotiations has been their attempts to cope with the distinction which seems to exist in the teacher's mind between the rules governing learning and the rules governing general conduct. Put simply, when involved in some cognitive activity pupils were expected to 'think for themselves' but when the rule involved behaviour, children were expected not to think but 'to do as they were told'. Thus, in one school, where there was little teacher-directed work, the pupils nevertheless were not allowed to go to the lavatory without first gaining permission, and had to walk in a crocodile when moving through other base areas lest they disturbed another class. Most teachers endorsed this distinction between independence in matters of learning and dependence in matters of behaviour, arguing that, 'once the children have learnt to behave themselves they can be given more responsibility'. In practice, it seems not to work that way. The reception teacher speaks to the children in a 'honeyed' voice when explaining the task and then suddenly the tone becomes strident when reprimanding James for not sitting still. Pupils never know what to expect and so they 'keep their heads down' and try to attract the teacher's attention as little as possible.
Often the tactics used to obtain obedience are such that they confuse the child even further. In one class, for example, the children were regularly told in a stern voice by
the teacher to 'listen carefully' whenever they started to make too much noise. When one child persisted in talking, the following exchange was recorded,
Teacher Darren, what do I mean when I say listen?Teachers appear to experience a marked degree of internal conflict between the principles of good primary practice which they are trying to implement and their own concern to be seen as an effective teacher who can control the children. This dissonance can often be reduced by teachers offering spurious reasons why a rule is needed so that they do not appear to be 'telling you to do this because I am your teacher'. For example, children were told to line up outside the classroom on the left hand side because 'They mustn't steal Miss Smith's space' which was on the right. In another school where staff decided, for reasons of tidiness, that children should not be encouraged to wear trainer shoes, they were told by one teacher that it was because 'they might spill hot fat on their foot when cooking'. When one child arrived in trainer shoes on a Monday and was reprimanded by a teacher for so doing he replied, 'But I'm not cooking until Friday, Miss'.
In these examples, there surely lies a basic confusion about the nature of progressive education. Plowden, along with others, has compounded these misunderstandings by bracketing together such diverse philosophical viewpoints as those of Rousseau, Froebel, Montessori and Dewey. Dewey, in particular, regarded many of the founding principles of the child-centred movement, the emphasis on individuality and natural development of the child with the curriculum chosen by the child rather than imposed by the teacher as the 'more negative phase of progressive education' and wondered whether it 'has not upon the whole run its course'. (Dewey 1928) He also opposed a curriculum based largely upon project work, because of the dominance it placed upon skills training since this was largely antagonistic to the orderly organisation of subject matter. As Kliebard (1986) notes in his history of the curriculum reform movement in America:
I was frankly puzzled by what was meant by the innumerable references I had seen to progressive education. The more I studied this the more it seemed to me that the term encompassed such a broad range, not just of different but of contradictory, ideas on education as to be meaningless. In the end, I came to believe that the term was not only vacuous but mischievous. It was not just the word 'progressive' that I thought was inappropriate but the implication that something deserving a single name existed and that something could be identified and defined if only we tried.'
(Kliebard, 1986 The Struggle for the American Curriculum. Preface)
Teachers clearly share the same puzzlement and not surprisingly; as Alexander (1984) argues, 'What they do not understand they do not value and what they do not value they do not teach well'. Non-directed learning is seen largely as a product of the 'romantic' view of childhood requiring a curriculum totally dictated by the child's developing needs and interests. While teachers are prepared to explore this approach in subjects other than basics, few teachers see a move away from close direction and control of pupil behaviour as leading to anything other than anarchy. Allowing pupils to decide when they wished to go the lavatory would result in thirty pupils milling around in the corridor and water all over the floor. What the teachers fail to see is
the strength and authority that comes from negotiating the rules of behaviour openly as a class and agreeing together the sanctions that might be imposed for misdemeanours. They perhaps do not appreciate that such negotiations will, in certain cases, require explanations to be given why certain decisions are 'unnegotiable', for example, safety rules in the gymnasium.
Teachers, often unconsciously, will refer to 'my class' or 'your class' when talking to pupils about work or behaviour. This dichotomy mirrors the debate about teaching methods during the last twenty years where a curriculum, largely determined by the children on the basis of perceived needs and interests, has been presented as the sole alternative to 'dependent' approaches where learning is controlled and directed by the teacher.
It is perhaps time to abandon this view of 'autonomous' learning particularly since research has repeatedly demonstrated that most teachers either do not understand or cannot implement the model. Rather than abandon attempts to implement 'progressive' approaches we might more usefully begin to talk with teachers about developing the concept of 'our classroom' with the pupils - where rules of both learning and behaviour are openly negotiated on the basis of the common interests of both teacher and taught. This approach, reflecting the ideas of John Dewey and his followers, has had little impact on the public debate in the intervening period since the publication of the Plowden Report. Recent research suggests there is an urgent need to remedy this neglect.
ALEXANDER R (1984) Primary Teaching (London, Holt Rinehart and Winston).
DEWEY J (1928) Progressive education and the science of education, Progressive Education, 5, pp. 197-204.