Book Review: The Future of Teaching

Having read The Future of Teaching, I think I can safely say that this book joins a very short list of books I would never recommend to others.

Given my past experience with reading education pundits, I should have taken the hint from the introduction, and left the book unread. Claxton is quite clear that the purpose of the book is to criticize. Admittedly, I’m not British, and perhaps my cultural understanding is therefore limited, but I found it both surprising and off putting to read such scathing hostility from the acknowledgements onward, complete with name calling. I can only assume that this is some previously hidden aspect of British academic culture. For example:

I’d like to express my thanks to all those whose work I have scrutinised in this book. … There are no bad people here…We can help each other along, if we have a mind to improve and are not in ideological lockdown. It is only fools who won’t change their minds.

(Claxton, 2021, p. xv)

The clear implication is that the people whose work he’s scrutinized should change their minds, or they are fools—just not “bad.” After he’s set up this rhetorical trick, he delivers the punch line:

“I do not expect my book to persuade the most ardent neo-traditionalists to take a more enlightened path. I think many of them are too ideologically wedded to their positions for any such changes of heart to occur, however cogent the arguments.”

(Claxton, 2021, p. xxi)

This kind of sophistry is threaded all through the book. When I see this kind of thing, I am reminded of the sort of people who think dominating in a verbal conversation wins arguments—and who are accustomed to winning the arguments by means of their position.

I am puzzled, because I had thought that a sign of a mature, reasonable adult was the ability to handle the cognitive dissonance of believing two contradictory things at the same time, and that two reasonable adults could look at the same evidence and come to different conclusions. In the first part of the book, Claxton is not shy about listing his qualifications.

“Honorary Professor of Education at the University of Bristol School of Education, Visiting Professor of Education at King’s College London School of Education, and Emeritus Professor of the Learning Sciences at the University of Winchester Centre for Real-World Learning (of which he was co-founder). He is a Fellow of the British Psychological Society and of the Academy of Social Sciences. He has a double first in natural sciences from the University of Cambridge, and a doctorate on The Roles of Perception and Memory in Language Comprehension from the University of Oxford. As a theoretical cognitive scientist, his work on non-intellectual aspects of intelligence has resulted in widely acclaimed books”

(Claxton, 2021, p. xiv)

 As a K-12 teacher, when I read books on teaching, I often look for K-12 teacher experience. I don’t see any K-12 teacher experience. I’m not going to argue that people without K-12 teaching experience don’t have anything valuable to say, but generally, when I teach I find that their areas of expertise have limited applicability. Perhaps I have the benefit of intellectual humility, because I do not have Claxton’s double first from Oxford. I am comfortable admitting that I am frequently wrong, often painfully so.

Since Dr. Claxton is so learned and so frequently published, I can only presume that his writing says what he means it to say. So when he says:  

“there is a small but vocal group busy lobbying for the idea that the only thing that ‘works’ is something called direct instruction in a knowledge-rich curriculum: what I will call DIKR for short. This is a particularly constricted version of what was (or is) supposed to go on in a traditional grammar school, and the DIKR enthusiasts would have you believe that this is what all young people need – and kids from poor or disadvantaged backgrounds need it most of all.”

(Claxton, 2021, pp. xx-xxi)

I feel that I must take him at his word. Therefore, I find the acronym particularly offensive. When pronounced, either it’s a variant of slang for a male penis, or it’s doubly offensive as a mockery of a slur for lesbians, but either way, someone so intelligent, well-educated, and experienced in writing made this authorial choice on purpose. Similarly, the book is littered with questionable word choices, ranging from the ableist (“blind eye,” “various kind [sic] of stupidity”) to a whiff of anti-Semitism (“cabal”), to an insensitivity towards different indigenous cultures (“tribe.”) Now, maybe one could say that I am being overly demanding, but since Claxton spent such effort explaining that the reader should attend because he’s erudite and experienced and Claxton made clear his allegiance to the progressive side, I expected different word choices.

In fact, such rhetorical tricks and word choices are all the more confusing because Claxton repeatedly refers to the development of what he calls “epistemic character – their general attitudes towards learning” (Claxton, 2021, p. 15) as a primary goal of education. Quite frankly, if the kind of attitude he displays towards those he disagrees with shows epistemic character, I don’t want to develop this in my students.

As teachers, we are role models for our students. Our beliefs are on display for them, particularly those beliefs that center around the purpose of education. In my experience, there are a few main strains of thought around the purpose of education.

One of those strands is very old, centering on teaching children how to perceive truth, beauty, and goodness in the world. This is the one I espouse to students when they ask me why we’re learning something. They’re working towards the elegant mathematical proof, the persuasively argued essay, a clear scientific analysis, a primary source analysis, and a critical analysis of literature, to perceive the truth, beauty, and goodness in these throughout their lives.

Another old idea behind the purpose of education is that of the citizen. I suspect that Claxton would not find this goal amiss, though he does not ever mention the word “citizenship” in his book. Just as Claxton can scan the indexes of Christodoulou’s book, Didau’s book, Ecclestone and Hayes’s book, and snark at the lack of an index in “the Michaela book,” I can search for citizenship in his book. While Claxton approvingly mentions others whose goal is active citizens, he does not specifically mention that as a goal for his own educational stance.

While I disagree with Hirsch on some things, I admire his persistent efforts to put citizenship at the core of a common curriculum, as evidenced in the Core Knowledge foundation curricula. Hirsch described this in How to Educate a Citizen.

A nation’s civil society and its moral principles should rule its head of government, not vice versa; those principles are supreme. The government and its leaders are not the nation. Such citizenship-patriotism was the kind Lincoln stressed in the Gettysburg Address when he spoke of “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

(Hirsch, 2020, p. 181)

Instead, what I perceive in Claxton’s book, via my lesser education and experience, is more utilitarian.

One viewpoint about the purpose of education is that students should learn for self-actualization, to find their joy. The general idea is that if you do what you love, it’ll inspire you to work harder and be less resentful of your job. I see this idea when Claxton says:

“Helping children to develop an attitude that – as one child put it to me – “learning is only fun when it’s hard” seems rather positive to me,” )

(Claxton, 2021, p. 81

As it happens, I find this to be rather classist. Very few students will ever get the opportunity to make a living doing what they love—and there is virtue in working a difficult, humble job providing for your family. I want to be a good teacher for all my students, not just the ones who are lucky enough to eventually do a job that they enjoy.

Claxton kind of sneers at the idea that students should be educated for future employment when he says,

“The truly empowering ‘knowledge’ they need is that which enables them, individually and collectively, to craft satisfying lives and to challenge injustice when they need to. Effective Black Lives Matter or Me Too activists do not rely much on the abstract knowledge they may have gained at school”

(Claxton, 2021, p. 190)

Since healthcare is linked to employment in the United States, I find it satisfying when I can meet basic needs for myself and my family. It’s all very well to talk about teaching children to challenge injustice, but in my opinion, the kind of keen humiliation felt when sitting in a dingy government office while balancing a toddler on one’s knee and begging a freshly graduated government bureaucrat for access to healthcare for one’s children really gives you a chance to understand how to challenge injustice.

Similarly, Claxton reiterates throughout the book that schools should develop what he terms dispositions towards learning in children. (Claxton, 2021, p. 21)  He makes a special point of arguing:

“all cultures, including families and conventional, traditional classrooms, inevitably contain such vocabularies and rituals [that render children “emotionally vulnerable”], often to lasting detrimental effect on students’ self-confidence and adventurousness – especially students from low-income or marginal families and communities.”

(Claxton, 2021, p. 85)

Earlier in the book, he points out:

“At a rough calculation, between the ages of 5 and 18 kids spend over a third of their waking lives in school. That’s around 18,000 hours. That’s a lot of contact time in which the thought-patterns of the family can be affirmed, developed or maybe overwritten by those of formal education.”

(Claxton, 2021, p. 24)

Combined with this argument:

“Let us refer back to the listing of these assumptions which I offered right at the beginning of this book…. It is not our job (and/ or not possible) to develop students’ ‘epistemic character’ – their general attitudes toward learning. It is certainly possible. Curiosity, resilience and critical thinking, for example, can all be either fostered or weakened by the educational cultures in which young people find themselves. Whether we should or not is a matter of our values. My values say it would be a deviant and malevolent world that made children spend a large part of their childhood in a place that systematically undermined these dispositions and then turned a blind eye to the damage wrought.”

(Claxton, 2021, pp. 186-190)

I think it’s clear that Claxton feels that students from the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum have families that have a “detrimental effect”, that the “thought-patterns of the family” from which those students come can be “overwritten” and that indeed, it’s a moral good for schools to do so. I am less sanguine about the necessity for schools to supplant the values of students’ families of origin.

Part of my skepticism is my experience as an Appalachian. In point of fact, I attended a school that wanted to overwrite our thought-patterns, purposefully teaching us not to speak in our local dialect, on the (accurate) basis that outsiders looked down on us for our speech patterns. Every year, my students laugh at my accent.

Our learning was imposed upon us by outside textbook companies that glorified out-of-state owned industries at the expense of our family history.  I’ll never forget the whispered drawl of my grandfather describing mercenaries getting off the train in Matewan, hired men coming in from out of state to kill off the striking miners. Without our family’s oral history, I wouldn’t have known that the Mine Wars were life and death.

It’s commonly accepted that hillbillies don’t value learning, yet my experience tells me otherwise. My small, rural school, in a county with a double digit unemployment rate, bent the rules to provide me an AP biology class, an Algebra III course, an AP Calculus course, and an advanced biology class. It wasn’t just for me—the administration allowed a teacher to come before school started to add an extra period to the school day, and the parents of an entire class of 16 year olds made sure they showed up at 6:15 am to make sure they had two periods for chemistry with a lab.

Another part of my skepticism is due to my experience as a woman in our culture. I am deeply suspicious of any effort to develop a student’s “dispositions.” In my experience, that typically means that the authority figure wants social compliance with their idea of a person should think, feel, and act, particularly as regards their status. Indeed, Claxton approvingly calls out, “questioning” (thinking), “a love of learning” (feeling), and “convivial” (acting). Frankly, I think Claxton’s set of “dispositions” are merely those habits of a privileged upper-class male student, and insisting on those as desirable traits dismisses the agency of other students.

Students should be allowed to simply reflect on the material. I don’t want students to have to put on a show of “engagement” or some kind of superficial interaction with the content. For example, every Friday in the spring semester, I offer a 50 minute lecture about the beauty of the cosmos, during which students can merely listen and soak it all in.

Students should be allowed to tell teachers when they dislike the work. We don’t need to judge them as bad kids, or as students in need of improvement. Not everything will appeal to everyone, and that’s fine—in fact, that helps develop their taste. It’s not news that telling girls to smile more is sexist. I’m not going to tell a student, as one of my teachers did, that if they acted more like a girl, they’d get further in life.

Students shouldn’t have to be charming or friendly. Instead, they should be civil and do the work even if they dislike it. More importantly, the sort of mental load that comes from pretending to like something you hate is often emotional labor relegated to women, particularly in an educational environment where one’s job (i.e., grade) depends on it. I had to smile and nod when my boss told me he wanted to turn me over his knee and spank me, and then again two weeks later when I was fired for complaining to a line manager about it. I don’t want students to feel like they have to smile and nod to keep their grade.

So no, I don’t like this book.

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