A few years ago, I found myself more frequently saying that ‘there has to be a better way’. Recent polls and surveys suggest I was not alone, and the sentiment is shared by many today: 44% of US K-12 Teachers feel burned out (Gallup Poll, 2022), with another poll finding the 2 out of 5 teachers plan to quit in the next two years; 22% of UK teachers plan to leave within the next five years (The Guardian); and up to 30% of teachers in some parts of Australia feel the same way (president of the AEU). Indeed, that sentiment was a large factor in my leaving mainstream education in the UK for a smaller, independent Catholic school in France.
The growing list of book-marking requirements, dissections of assessment data and the nature of appraisal targets looked less and less like their end goal was the education of children, and more like they were being done to satisfy someone else in the game. The apparent obsession with assessment data and exam results led to many students valuing their academic abilities only on the test grade, while departmental analysis of exam results of recent graduates when their seats had barely cooled. None of my colleagues saw pupils as numbers, but the system we worked within always made us come back to them as such. It seemed as if the true telos was good examination results alone.
More experienced colleagues insisted that the ‘new’ techniques we learned in PD sessions were older practises re-hashed, and we all happily jumped off the Brain Gym and simple Learning Styles bandwagons, which we had hitherto been assured were effective. At the same time, ResearchEd began rocking the boat with its emphasis on evidence-based practises. The likes of Christodoulou, Lemov and Dylan Wiliam rationalised and substantiated more traditional approaches to teaching, albeit by some catchier names. Schools like Michaela put many of these into practise with great success. Though I was already suspicious of my teacher training, where the course director described her approach as being so far left it crashed through Dewey’s progressivist wall, these developments confirmed my belief that there was a better way.
I stumbled onto Classical Education, although I’d had a taste of many of its tenets in my undergraduate years at Campion College. Whilst every school proclaims to have the child’s welfare at its heart, few appear to act like it. Classical schools seemed to be successfully doing away with the exam obsession or diving headlong into the myriad trendy and arduous educational fads that come and go. They seek to genuinely care about the students learning for life, with a conscientious focus on the transcendentals and human flourishing. With every podcast and article I consumed, I became more convinced that this is the model I need to be working towards in my own classroom.
I was delighted to see the Paideia Pedagogy course being offered to Australian teachers (and even more so that I was allowed to join in!). The readings, lectures, seminars and discussions are invigorating, and it is with a sense of disappointment the times I realise we’re in a readings/ written discussion week rather than meeting virtually. I have felt more professional growth in the last few months than in the last few years, and more impassioned for my teaching as a craft.
The course follows the Paideia Group, chaired by Mortimer Adler, addressing many of the same problems in the 70s that we face today. Their approaches are markedly different from the ones adopted by states around the world, which will not surprise any of this newsletter’s readership; what might be more surprising is how progressive they initially seem to be. I would normally shy away from a work that is dedicated to John Dewey, for example. Adler, however, takes the needs that Dewey identified and proposes a response that does not leave the child in the driver’s seat, as so many classrooms appear to be trying to facilitate today, or with thirty-two unique goals for each of the students in the room, in its drive to educate all children. The Paideia Group offers a pedagogy which is driven by ‘learning’ and careful consideration of the content that will be learned. It calls teachers to examine how their methods really contribute to the children consciously learning, employing three main Columns of Learning to guide activities and lessons designed to provide the best education for all.
I often feel lost as to where to go next when learning about classical education. The Paideia course is constantly reassuring me. First, it is sensible, and anything that initially smacks of rudderless PBL or the teacher solely as ‘guide on the side’ is swiftly followed with a clarification as to how it works and how to avoid the pitfalls many teachers have fallen into. Second, it is frequently supported by many of the other bigger names in classical education that I’ve come across, usually being reconcilable with Charlotte Mason, Educational Renaissance, Educating Humans and so on. Finally, it never holds itself to be the monolith of classical education (that perhaps I have secretly been looking for) and calls me to adhere to the Paideia Group’s 12th principle to continue my own learning. This of course has all been much easier and more enjoyable because of the people I engage with in the course. I am being accompanied by some fine colleagues in Australia, who themselves challenge me to better my practise and imitate the work they are doing Down Under. I am also being lectured, instructed, coached and questioned by the formidable Dr Woods, Headmaster of Veritas Christian Academy, NC, and author of Mortimer Adler: The Paideia Way of Classical Education. His valuable insights and suggestions are inspiring and so welcome.
The course has been such a joy so far, and a great source for optimism for the future. Perhaps we too can say, like the 1982 Paideia Proposal, ‘We are on the verge of a new era in our national life. The long-needed educational reform for which this country is at last ready will be a turning point toward that new era.’ I’m certainly ready for this better way.