Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Personal and positional authority

In interviewing former teachers about what English teaching was like in schools in the period from the end of the war to 1965 we’ve heard that in the 60s, if not earlier, there was a divide in approaches to teaching working class children.

This isn’t news, of course; it’s the divide to which the terms ‘traditional[ist]’ and ‘progressive’ have often been applied. It seems to have been real: while the first group favoured strict control over classroom behaviour, silence from pupils except when answering questions or reading aloud, the explicit teaching of grammar and, perhaps above all, an emphasis on correctness in written English (grammar, punctuation, spelling), the second believed that above all pupils should be encouraged to put their thoughts, observations and experiences into words, and thus become confident and articulate in speaking and writing; the best way to get language working in a motivated way (self-motivation -- i.e. interest -- was crucial) was to encourage discussion and writing about topics that engaged them; that often indicated topics from their own real lives.

The latter is the line that was promoted to graduate trainees on PGCE courses, first at the London Institute of Education (Britton, Rosen, Martin) and eventually nearly everywhere. But the argument put to us in some interviews is that it was middle class Institute graduates who as English teachers carried their respect for the language and culture of their working class pupils to the point where it placed in jeopardy the pupils’ chances of passing O Level and meeting employers’ expectations. Those who made this argument were non-graduate teachers of working class origin who had won their education and qualification the hard way and who wanted to give their own pupils what they needed to get on.

I was one of the Institute-trained graduate teachers to whom such criticisms might have applied. There is truth in them in that we did believe that an ability to express oneself in language -- to generate discourse, written and spoken, that used linguistic resources to good effect -- was more important initially than Standard English grammar and correct orthography. And if ‘initially’ meant ‘until they could express themselves effectively in language apart from the written conventions, that period might well not end until after the age (16) at which the public exams were sat.

According to linguistics, we maintained, no variety (dialect) of English is inherently better than another but only looks that way because of what it is used for and by whom -- for the communications of those who run things. We therefore regarded the imposition of standard grammar on non-standard-speaking working class pupils as, ultimately, class oppression, and O Level’s stress on grammar and spelling as an unjustified barrier to working class advancement into higher education and professional careers. (Hence we championed the proposed CSE -- Certificate of Secondary Education – which we saw as both more permissive in respect of conventional requirements and more reliable in terms of sampling candidates’ general written abilities.) Maintaining these beliefs was, I still think, more or less right in principle: if English teachers weren’t going to oppose the stupidity of the old O Level -- which had to be seen to be believed -- who would? We may, though, have put them into practice without enough thought for the consequences.

Some brilliant English teaching was achieved by both camps, and teachers from both retain to this day the respect and gratitude of former pupils, as we’re also finding in our study. The practices of each were sometimes caricatured by the others; good teachers from both sides got good exam results. The traditionalists made reluctant and lazy kids work; the progressives sometimes got them interested enough to choose to work under their own steam; both sides failed with many kids who just didn’t want any of it. It’s also true, though, that students who were engaged by each type of teaching got a different education out of it – but that’s a story for another time.

Was it caricature when they said we were experimenting with working class kids, in a way we couldn’t have got away with in middle class grammar schools? Perhaps; but experiment was badly needed. The men and women who trained us at the Institute had themselves been pioneers in drawing attention to the resources and often the poetic beauty of working class speech and the qualities of children’s writing, and, a bit later (Rosen in particular) the way that it often fulfils functions of abstracting and theorising within its familiar frames of narrative and enactment. English teaching had never hitherto attempted to treat the qualities of vernacular language as a resource on which to build, and we needed to work out how to. Our experiments were about creating new possibilities for students to put their native intelligence and linguistic capacity to productive use, to the end of getting into both more analytic and more literary forms of discourse, and of coming to grips with school knowledge. We were pioneering forms of learning that were viable alternatives to just ‘being told’, and made to work, by a strict – if sometimes charismatic -- teacher.

But if we ask how many of our pupils in a working class school with hardly any ‘grammar school’ intake we got into that ‘more analytic and more literary forms of discourse’, we have to say, not many. But did the others do any better?

We Institute graduates, I believe, knew more about language. We saw more in the children’s language than those without that training, who often missed the qualities on which one could build, seeing only correctness or its absence, and perhaps a good word (‘Nice adjective!) or turn of phrase here or there. We got excited about what the kids were able to achieve in relatively informal genres of writing and in discussion -- perhaps so excited that we were apt to forget the huge gap that remained to be bridged between those achievements and the level and type of linguistic virtuosity, as well as conventional competence, that were demanded for higher education and professional employment.

But there was something else behind this split, and it went deeper. At some point on the PGCE I learned (from a Bernstein lecture?) a distinction between two types of authority, positional and personal. Positional authority derived from a person’s position, such as mother, grandmother, teacher, police officer – or, in relation to children, adult. Personal authority was accorded to a person on the basis of personal qualities. The working class non-graduate traditionalists I've been referring to tended to exercise positional authority: they may have cared for the students and liked them, but they expected the outward forms of respect and formal modes of address, and maintained a distance. This form of authority was held to be consistent with that found in typical working class families.

Some teachers like me had come from homes where authority was often more personal and, as we saw it, more humane and less demeaning. For my university-educated generation it went against the grain to make demands by right rather than negotiate and reason; we wanted pupils to go along with our regime because it was clearly reasonable. In our own grammar schools we’d experienced plenty of traditional authority exercised in a curriculum and pedagogy that often made little sense, and we’d had enough of it. We weren’t going to treat kids like that and didn’t want positional adult authority, though of course we often had to fall back on it. Culturally, too, we often felt closer to the kids than to our older colleagues – and in those days a high proportion of the teachers was a lot older.

To the argument of the traditionalists that working class children needed positional authority (showing respect etc) because that was what they were used to at home, our answer would have been that our duty was to liberate young people from unthinking obedience and teach them to make their own minds up. If they were to become rational, autonomous learners they had to be treated as such. That implied our starting from a position of initial respect for what they brought to school with them by way of language and values, though we knew that in the end it wasn’t enough. Better to begin that way than to tell them theirs was not to reason why but only to get on with learning what they were told, the reasons for which they’d appreciate later.

Our intellectual position seemed and seems quite strong, though what lay behind it was as much a generation’s sense of itself and its role in progress as a rationally worked-out principle. But I think, too, of Mr Twelves’s teaching (see my earlier posting, 5 January 2008 ), and of all those European biographies of poor boys who got into gymnasium or lycée and thrived on the beauty of abstract disciplines and of language far removed from that normally experienced.

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