Volume 1 (The Report)
Volume 2 (Research and Surveys)
published in 1987 on Plowden's twentieth anniversary.
AH Halsey and Kathy Sylva
The Oxford Review of Education articles were prepared for the web by Derek Gillard and uploaded on 3 January 2005.
Aspects of Communication and the Plowden Report
Andrew M Wilkinson
© Copyright 1987 Carfax Publishing
Page numbers are from the journal.
ANDREW WILKINSON was Professor of Education at the University of East Anglia and Chairman of the National Writing Project which he initiated. He published widely in the field of language in education and was an Italia Prize winner. I am informed that he died some years ago.
Aspects of Communication and the Plowden Report
ABSTRACT Plowden places the child at the centre of the educational process. In doing so it offers a particular definition of 'the child' which was heavily criticised at the time. This definition may be seen in the context of a series of social constructs of childhood prompted by the growth of humanist ideas. The Report was timely and informed much subsequent educational thinking. However, its progressive thrust was not completely supported in individual subject areas. English saw itself as trend-setting but in fact its observations were portly and did not represent the best that was being thought and written at the time, whilst Modem Languages made no secret of its reservations about 'the developing tradition in primary education'.
But the influence of a document is not confined to what it purports to say. It has sociolinguistic meanings related to its status, power, context, timing, reader receptiveness, and in Plowden these meanings were benign.
Plowden was good: that resounding opening sentence - 'At the heart of the educational process lies the child'. It may be difficult to think back beyond that, so pervasive has such a philosophy become. But a long time before that it was: 'at the centre of the educational process lies the priest': and then 'at the centre of the educational process lies the teacher'. But Plowden put the child there. And, it could be argued, Chapters Three and Four are saying: 'also at the centre of the educational process lies the parent'. Limited formulations, possibly, but how much better than the one we now seem to be coming to: 'at the centre of the educational process lies the politician'.
Perhaps the single statement which best captures Plowden's view of childhood is that about the school being a community, in which children learn to live 'first and foremost as children and not as future adults'. Not new of course, something about it in Corinthians I 13:11; 'when I was a child I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child'. And there was Rousseau: 'Childhood has its own ways of seeing, thinking, and feeling; nothing is more foolish than to try to substitute our ways'. (1957 edition). And, to come nearer home, there was Blake, who in the Songs of Innocence and Experience demonstrated at once the integrity of the childhood life and its relationships to adult definitions of reality. But on the whole nobody took any notice of these wild and roaring boys, except a few cranky educationists. Certainly as far as the practice of schools in the UK was concerned they might never have existed. Service to the community was all in the sense that you needed limited educational skills to be a cog in the industrial machine which made Victorian prosperity. The twentieth century heard more voices, but the point about Plowden is that effectively it is the first time
that such insights become the platform for an official report. The philosophers get their chance in Syracuse.
But there was severe criticism. The heavies waded in, notably in Perspectives on Plowden edited by RS Peters. (Peters 1969) Peters, referring to the section on 'The aims of primary education' particularly paragraph 505, writes (p. 3) 'this summary of a 'recognisable educational philosophy' proliferates in important half-truths that are paraded as educational panaceas'. He challenges the notion that children have a 'nature' which will develop if a suitable environment is provided. What will they develop into? Presumably 'mature adults' who can 'be themselves' and be 'critical of (their) society' (p. 4). The argument is pressed cogently; an education based on choice might not produce the technocrats society needs; interests are not self-originating but caught from others; there is no evidence that 'discovery' produces better learning; the notion that children become 'ready' by some process of internal ripening without imitation, identification, and instruction' is highly suspect; the distinction between 'subjects' is not arbitrary; and so on.
But it gradually becomes apparent in reading such criticisms that the 'half-truths' are not being remedied by supplying the other set of half-truths. Take the comment on important features of maturity, for example:
... little is known about how autonomy, independence, and 'creativeness' are developed. It may well be that a very bad way of developing [these] is to give children too many opportunities for uninformed 'choices' too young.A careful reading of what seem relevant sections of the Report throws up no evidence that the Plowden Committee intended to give such opportunities. But leave that aside. Leave aside also the puzzling distinction between 'autonomy' and 'independence' and their relationship to 'creativeness'. And look at the phrasing of the objection: 'It may well be that ...' What kind of objection is that? It merely means 'I don't know either'. What would be a 'good' way of developing 'creativity'? For example, many creative people have unhappy childhoods. Ought we instead to build in neurosis early? We are not told.
Critics of a report, particularly one that may receive official endorsement, have at a particular point in time a particular job to do. And on the whole the critics of the Plowden Report did it well. But twenty years after we have a different perspective, both on the Report and its critics. We can see that they are offering a number of social constructs, particularly on 'the child' in a historical line of social constructs on 'the child'.
The most fluent description of these in recent years is that given by Postman (1981). He offers a description of life in medieval England where he perceives no sense of 'childhood' as such. Factors such as weather, cramped accommodation, the absence of sanitary facilities, generations living together, made for a complete lack of privacy. Birth, copulation and death went on in public. Adult life was not a series of mysteries to which the young were gradually admitted. Whatever the nature of the life they lived young and old were in it together. Nor does there seem to have been a particular tenderness towards the vulnerability of the young which characterises modern societies; heavy infant mortality seems to have successfully numbed such impulses. The Virgin Mary might demonstrate in statuary and stained glass the pleasures of motherhood. But that was, as they say, a different ball game.
What brought about the change, argues Postman, was the discovery of printing. It became possible not just to live in the here and how, but also in the there and then; not
just in the world of specifics, but in the world of abstractions. Human memory was no longer limited by the memory of those alive, together with what they have been told by those who are dead.
The oral tradition is a great thing for preserving social cohesion and identity; for preserving accurate information it is, as they say, the pits. Bruner speaks of the access of literacy as making a profound difference to the human mind because reading and writing move it towards 'context-free elaboration' (1975, p. 63). To speak is to write on water. Our words make no mark on the colourless surface and are swept away immediately. To consider our thoughts, develop them, build them into complex argument, we must have them before us, so that we have time with them.
On this argument the consequences of literacy were two-fold. First it required a different way of thinking; second it made the possible objects of thought much vaster, far more complex. Children had no access to either, they could not acquire them merely by living with adults. A special road had to be followed to these adult mysteries; that provided by schooling. Hence nowadays our association of childhood with the period of schooling. Guttenberg of Mainz invented 'the child'. This idea has such a seductive beauty and simplicity about it that only a churl would criticise it. But in fact 'the child' is a concept, and concepts originate in the human mind, however much social and mechanical forces may prompt them. The Jewish culture of Old Testament times (which Postman significantly fails to mention at all) was an oral one, yet kept adult knowledge separate and adult behaviour private. On the other hand the introduction of literacy at the end of the Middle Ages did not bring childhood with it. It speeded up the circulation of all ideas, but that is another matter. And under Protestantism, particularly in its more Puritan aspects, it emphasised that child and adult were really no different. Wesley forbade games at the Methodist school of Kingswood, Bristol, on the grounds that he who plays as a boy will play as a man. Isaac Watts wrote an anthology of verse especially designed for children. Song XIII is called The Dangers of Delay and three verses of it are:
Why should I say, 'Tis yet too soonWatts's poems were published in 1709. The same century, however, saw the growth of a humanitarian movement which, in literature, has become known as 'Sentimentalism' because of its emphasis on 'sentiment' and feeling as distinct from reason. The growth of the novel itself during this period can be seen as an attempt to explore the otherness of human beings and their uniqueness. Blake wrote:
Why is one law given to the lion & the patient Ox
Does thou not see that men cannot be formed all alike.It is in this climate that the formulations of Rousseau can be best understood:
Mankind has its place in the sequence of things. Childhood has its place in the sequence of human life; the man must be treated as a man and the child as a child ...Nowadays it needs a positive act of the imagination to realise how dangerously revolutionary such words would seem to so many people alive at the time. But the point of all this for the present argument is that it had very little to do with the printing press, and very much to do with religious and humanitarian beliefs.
In this context the Plowden view of children and that of Plowden's critics can be seen as social constructs, and the question is can we get beyond this? Can we say that one view is more firmly based in the perceived facts than another? This is a difficult one - Hell and damnation were perceived facts to Isaac Watts. Can we then say that one view is more operationally efficient than another, produces more effective learning? The experiments of the classical psychologists who compared two or more learning methods by eliminating the variables would be of no help to us here because the variables can never be eliminated. To some teachers Plowden came as rain in the desert - how do you eliminate that variable? It was full of faith and hope in human potential - and how do you eliminate that and the effects it has on the teachers? It inspired government to produce money, for nursery schools particularly, and who would want to eliminate that variable? One's own observation would be that it did an immense amount of good in informing a conservative system. Bennett's work (1976) may be interpreted as indicating that teachers are too stable to abandon long-standing practices at the behest of an official report. The government discussion document Education in Schools written ten years after (1977) commented:
While only a tiny minority of schools adopted the child-centred approach to the exclusion of other teaching methods its influence has been widespread.II
It is the general thrust of the Plowden report which is progressive. As was remarked at the time the writing about individual subject areas is much more circumspect. This was partly because the writers were necessarily obliged to produce some practical examples, and in many cases the practice had not yet developed. But it was also because, in some subjects at least, very little was known even on the theoretical level. This was certainly the case in 'language' and 'English'. To look at Plowden in these sections is to realise what an immense amount of work has gone on since that time. The writers of these sections were tentative, realising the limitations of their knowledge. The English section put its trust in an ongoing project of the Schools Council, 'Project English', which would resolve current perplexities (what was 'Project English'?) but much was known, which it was unaware of, or ignored.
As far as the language of young children is concerned the Report is properly excited about the interrelationships between them and their parents through which it grows, though of course concepts such as intersubjectivity are a long way in the future. There is, however, a naive view that language develops from feeling to thinking, which should have been modified even at the time:
Language originates as a means of expressing feeling ... to become finally part of the child's internal equipment for thinking. (Paragraph 54)Again, a phrase omitted from the above sentences - 'Language develops through the stages of speech, of repeating the commands and prohibitions of others ...' picks out for special mention two disciplinary activities, as though in some sense these were central. The following paragraph (55) begins unexceptionably 'The development of language is therefore central to the educational process'. But after that there are some fairly shaky assertions. For example old research is referenced that the child needs to understand about 3000 words to begin reading. This may seem a plausible statement, but in fact the number of words has little to do with the process of reading. Again we are told 'Most children can make sentences by the time they go to school ...' In fact they can do so at two. Otherwise how would they communicate - in single words, nods and grunts? The sentence continues that they are 'able to understand simple instructions given by unfamiliar people'. Why all this ordering about of children? All in all the writers of these paragraphs show little knowledge of young children and of the detailed reciprocities in which they develop. The second paragraph finishes with a fine flourish. 'The psychological trauma of placing a child without adequate powers of communication in a new social situation can be serious'. (But anyway how can a 'trauma' be other than 'serious?)
In Chapter 17 of the Report, Aspects of the Curriculum, there is a section on the teaching of Modern Languages, and one on the teaching of English.
At the time, the teaching of primary school French was a fashionable notion. Teachers were trained and materials produced in a Nuffield sponsored project. It might seem to have been easy for the Modern Language panel to be carried along. Instead they came as near as they possibly could to predicting the disaster that the experiment turned out to be, without actually saying so: 'we retain certain reservations' - 'we hope the experimental nature of the project will be recognised' - we hope 'that no attempt will be made to press further the teaching of a second language in primary schools until the results of the experiments can be fully assessed'. (Paragraph 614) Unfortunately the reservations are mainly in terms of the lack of properly qualified teachers and materials rather than a probing of the fundamental problems. But one thing does emerge. Modern Languages were not thought to fit at all into the general 'progressive' movement for which Plowden stood:
In the meantime there is bound to be some anxiety lest the methods used in teaching French vary sharply from those used in the rest of the curriculum. The developing tradition in primary education since 1945 has been away from class teaching and from formal lessons, but the early stages of learning a modern language inevitably involve some class teaching and many teachers feel that much hard-won ground will have to be given up.Modern Languages thus found itself isolated from much of the rest of the Report and made no gestures towards the future. On the other hand English saw itself as trend-setting: 'revolution has certainly come' (579). The first section is entitled Speech (580) and certainly the spoken language needed emphasising in 1967; schools had long operated in a climate of literacy and silence. But this having been said the section is disappointing. It did not use the Schools Council Project on oracy, and offered an old-fashioned model based on public speaking: 'occasions should be devised for them to talk, according to their capacity, to the class and at assembly, when audibility, and practice to ensure it, become a necessity' (582). There is no sense of
what the Schools Council Project had written: that 'oracy is not a 'subject' - it is a condition of learning in all subjects' - 'a state of being in which the whole school must operate'. (Wilkinson et al 1965, p. 58) The lack of awareness of the spoken language as an entity underlies other remarks, such as criticism of 'phrases like "kind of" which impede clear communication'. In the classroom there is realisation that teachers should talk to children, but not that children should talk to each other.
The next section, on Reading, gives the standard information and advice that one would expect at that time. They are properly wary of any one approach to reading, and commend teachers who use 'a range of schemes with different characteristics, selecting carefully for each child'. (584) What would have pulled all this together was research not yet available (or not known) to the writers, namely that of Southgate (1965 and 1966) which perceived method, media or schemes as secondary to the 'reading drive' of teachers. Another paragraph discusses the Initial Teaching Alphabet, which seemed attractive at the time, but which since has sunk without trace. We are too early for the far more useful studies of MacKay et al (1970), Breakthrough to Literacy. A section headed 'A Range of Books' finds too many teachers ignorant of contemporary children's stories, and relying on safe classics, or rehashed versions of them, a state of affairs we do not find today. The experience of literature is described as follows:
As [the children] 'try on' first one story book character then another, imagination and sympathy, the power to enter into another personality and situation, which is a characteristic of childhood and a fundamental condition for good social relationships, is preserved and nurtured.The metaphor of 'trying on' is a useful one, implying some but not complete, not permanent, identification. This section does attempt a rationale for reading books. But the section on Poetry which follows does not do so for poetry. We are told 'children may lose much when they are not set an example of getting poetry by heart' (597) but we are not told what that 'much' is (the kind of retreat into portentousness common in official reports). Nor does the section on Drama (600), which commends drama, say why it is a good thing.
The final section is that on Writing. This was the age of 'creative writing' which was such a great advance. The Report speaks of
free, fluent and copious writing on a great variety of subject matter. Sometimes it is called 'creative writing', a rather grand name for it. Its essence is that much of it is personal and that the writers are communicating something that is really engaging their minds and their imaginations. (603)There is no sense of a model of written discourse which could range from the personal and narrative, on the one hand, to the impersonal and discursive on the other. Narrative is a basic mode of organising experience, because we live in a world of time, but the 'invented story' is rather deprecated on the grounds that it is 'often second rate and derivative from poorish material' (but we write from internalised models or 'genres'). The year after Plowden, Barbara Hardy published her well-known formulation of 'narrative as a primary act of mind' (1968). Nevertheless in these sections there is some awareness of the need for different types of writing, and a foreshadowing of the 'writing across the curriculum' movement, though it is unfortunately seen in relation to the 'ablest children' who
can benefit particularly from the disciplined writing which ought to accompany first-hand observation in geography or science. Exact observation and
exact language should go hand in hand and children should be helped to see that the validity of a simple experiment should depend on exact recording.The phrase 'should be helped' is a significant one; forms of it occur many times in the Report:
In all types of writing children will need tactful help in conveying their meaning, and in the craftmanship of writing. (609)Previously this 'help' was called 'teaching', subsequently 'intervention'. Whatever one calls it its occurrence gives no colour to the criticism that Plowden leaves the children to fend for themselves in a supermarket.
The concluding sections (610-613) have the appearance of a hasty round-up of items not covered so as to be up-to-date and 'comprehensive'. 'Group teaching' is mentioned in a single sentence, but no explanation is given of its uses. 'Programmed texts' are commended to help correct errors (a wrong horse backed) - again a single sentence. Genuflection is made to 'the study of linguistics' - the path to the boneyard indeed. (611) 'Formal study of grammar' will have little place in the primary school, we are reassured, and the idea of 'teaching linguistics' there is firmly dismissed, though teachers should acquire some knowledge of it so as to give a sound view of how language works. The last paragraph looks expectantly to 'Project English' (another wrong horse). The last sentence encourages the reader not to slacken in 'advancing the power of language' which is the 'instrument of society' and a 'principal means to personal development'. In the whole section on English almost nothing has been said about the former, and the uncontextualised and unreferenced quotation makes it very difficult to know what is meant by it.
Nothing is easier with hindsight than to fault a report such as the one we are discussing. What seems obvious now was not so then. To try to predict and to further trends perceived as desirable is inevitably to lose some bets. Even so one has to say that the language and English sections are disappointing. It could be argued that they came at an unfortunate time - given the next three years much more would have been published they could have drawn on. But ideas are in the air, in discussion in informed circles, in informal papers at conferences, sometimes several years before they appear in print; and Plowden must have got some of those ideas, those papers submitted as evidence if in no other way. As it is these sections play it safe, and do very little positive to complement the central philosophy of the Report. In this they are unlike the Modern Language section which has no intention of doing so.
One may comment on the sections of subject teaching, but on the whole nobody seeks advice from them. They are too general, too consensus-based to set the blood racing. It is the overall thrust of the Report which has an impact. And in this aspect we need to emphasise its nature as 'text' in the linguistic/structural sense. As Kress (1986, p. 199) writes:
Reading and writing, like all language activity, always take place in a specific social context. The purposes, functions and organisation of the context shape the language that is part of that context.Equally the socio-linguistic 'meaning' of a text is not confined to the surface meaning of the words. It is a question also of status, power, previous and subsequent
texts, historical context, timing, the frame of reference and the response of the reader, particularly in this case the teacher, and so on. Public documents in particular often have a wealth of such meanings. We are fortunate with the Plowden Report that they were so positive.
BENNETT N (1976) Teaching Styles and Classroom Practice (London, Open Books).