Beyond the Ideological Lockdown

“There is a well-intentioned but misguided belief … that to do anything other than fill young people with cut-and-dried knowledge is to be guilty of the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’.” – Guy Claxton

In his latest book, The Future of Teaching, and the Myths That Hold It Back, Guy Claxton makes an interesting contribution to a debate that he describes as an unedifying, unprofitable Punch and Judy slugfest between traditional and progressive positions on education. At the heart of this book is a belief that: “The search for a new model of education – one that is genuinely empowering for all young people – is serious and necessary. Some good progress has already been made, but teachers and school leaders are being held back by specious beliefs, false oppositions and the limited thinking of orthodoxy.”

Claxton makes three particularly salient points at the outset that are worth highlighting:

  • No matter how much we teach our students, if we extinguish the passion for learning that all young children bring to school, we will have failed them.
  • There are no bad people here: we all want the best for children, and we are all on the path from novice to expert in our understanding of education and its possibilities.
  • We can help each other along, if we have a mind to improve and are not in ideological lockdown. 

Regardless of the approaches that schools may take, he contends, “there really is no need for the kind of educational warfare that still persists, and which is holding back the explorations and innovations that our students can only benefit from.” In defining education as something much more than the accumulation, repetition, and regurgitation of knowledge – “learning is expanding your comprehension, conceptualisation, competence and character” – Claxton advocates for student-centred approaches to education and highlights the damage that we must avoid causing: 

“There are broader dispositions, habits of mind and mindsets that increase students’ ‘learning power’ and can be intentionally cultivated in the right classroom climate. To neglect this possibility is to run the serious risk of unwittingly creating a cultural undertow that does not strengthen and broaden students’ ability to cope with challenge and uncertainty but narrows and weakens it.”

Informed by an analysis of the various positions grounded in research and educational practice, Claxton’s view is that we need an approach to education that is balanced and that includes rigorous knowledge, the development of conceptual understanding, competence, and character. Claxton’s salutary message is clear. 

“We cannot afford to be held back by oversimplified and dogmatic views. Educational improvement should not be just about racking up the test scores … our ambition should be far greater than that alone. It is about rearing millions of youngsters who naturally think critically, creatively and collectively about the world in which they find themselves, find or devise work that is fulfilling and responsible, and strive to make the world a better and a safer place for their children – our grandchildren – to inhabit.”

David Perkins warns us that, “curriculum suffers from something of a crowded garage effect: It generally seems safer and easier to keep the old bicycle around than to throw it out.” The corollary can be that it is the things we should truly value that we are often in danger of dispensing with. The well-intentioned road to school improvement is strewn with collateral damage to the arts, physical education, and other opportunities for joyful, deep learning, unwittingly decreed as frivolous and disposable.

Emphasising things like creativity, the arts, character, and wellbeing – alongside core knowledge and skills – as critical components of the curriculum does not diminish academic achievement or quality; in fact, in their very absence, we are failing our learners and society. If we want our young people to be both educated and cultured – to be able to contribute to modern society and live meaningful lives – then we need to provide them with the environment and context that will allow for this.

At times, one could suggest, Claxton weighs into the Punch and Judy slugfest himself, leaning towards a progressive position on the future of education while taking a more critical stance on traditional intransigence. The essence of his core argument, however, requires us to look beyond these polarities in order to truly see the learners. If we want to truly provide “rigor” and “excellence” for all students – and improve society in the process – the task ahead of schools is abundantly clear. We must start with the individual student, not the system, and we must provide them with the opportunities and choices that will allow them to pursue their passions, interests and potential in truly meaningful and personal ways.

Claxton, Guy. The Future of Teaching And the Myths That Hold It Back. Routledge, 2021.
Hough, Lory. “What’s Worth Learning in School?” Ed. Harvard Ed Magazine. Winter, 2015.