Nov 16, 2011 by

Colin Hannaford – Recently the United States and Britain were both shown to be behind little old Estonia in the three essential subjects: reading, mathematics and science.

This is an interesting fact.

The Nobel prize-winning physicist, Richard Philip Feynman once explained: ‘No matter how great the authority declaring a theory to be true, no matter how plausible it is to everyone else, the only test is the experiment.’

So, we should ask: What was the experiment producing these results?

Let me give you a clue.

Some months ago I was invited to a conference of Britain’s foremost educational consultancy. Its introductory brochure explained that its aim is to ‘challenge orthodoxies’ in order to help governments far and wide to achieve their educational goals.

This always seems a good idea. Some time in the afternoon, I was sitting the director and his staff when I seized an opportunity. “Tell me,” I began. “I see that you are always ready to challenge orthodoxies. What is yours?”

Their faces were blank.

“Okay,” I tried again. “Let me ask in a slightly different way. On what does the success of your efforts depend?”

To this the director replied without hesitation: “Teaching quality.”

“So,” I replied. “Improving teaching quality is your orthodoxy. But what if teaching quality actually matters far less than learning quality? What if you have got the teacher’s and the pupils’ responsibilities the wrong way round? You are currently telling pupils, and their parents, that a teacher is responsible for their learning. Is this true? Can a single teacher, with a class of twenty, thirty, forty, or more, actually be responsible for their learning, of the individual learning of them all? What if the pupils are told instead, from the beginning, that the responsibility for their learning is theirs: that their teacher can help, but cannot be responsible for their individual learning!”

The director told me later that this ‘made me think!’

I am sure it did. I am also sure that it did not alter his conviction by a jot or a tittle. Convictions are like that. This is why minor skirmishes turn into minor battles, then into bigger battles, then into full-scale wars, and suddenly the casualties are enormous.

This is the experiment that has failed. This emphasis on improving teacher quality in both Britain and the United States, and elsewhere, is a tragic waste of money and effort. The casualties are enormous. I know that many other eminent educationalists believe that improving teaching quality is the only way to lift education standards. I hope I may be allowed to explain why they are making a mistake.

I am a wonderful teacher. I began to realise that the fact that I am such a wonderful teacher was making my pupils expect that all their later teachers would be wonderful teachers too.

But there are simply not enough wonderful teachers to go around. Bite on this bullet. There never will be enough. Instead you create the ugly consequences of not especially wonderful but hard-working teachers trying desperately to be wonderful, and being blamed by everyone when it becomes obvious that they are not.

Some months ago a teacher in Germany burnt herself to death right outside her school. She had been told that her teaching quality was not good enough. Why do you suppose the average length of a teacher’s career after finishing their training in Britain and the United States is less than five years? They are also made to believe that their teaching quality is not good enough.

My teaching quality was good enough: but I was making my pupils lazy. Within a few years of discovering how to transfer the responsibility for their learning from me to them, I was working at the front of my class one day when one of young supporters came to my desk to tell me something. “You know why they,” she managed to indicate some of the other girls without lifting her head, “don’t like you, don’t you?” She didn’t wait for my reply. “It’s because they have to work. They didn’t have to work when you were always telling us what to do. Now they have to find out for themselves. That’s what they don’t like.”

I am not the inventor of what is being called the Socratic Method. I am the inventor of the Socrates Method. I do regret not having chosen a more unusual name. It’s too late now. The difference is rather more important than will appear from its name.

I know what the Socratic Method usually means. It means that a teacher tries to engage the interest of a lethargic class by questioning selected individuals whilst the rest of the class waits for the answer. Usually it doesn’t come. Those who are asked hate you. Those who are waiting think you are just being lazy.

“No, no, no, Mr H!” I was once told by a very angry senior pupil when I began the alternative without first preparing her or her class for the change. “It’s you who’s supposed to teach us this rubbish! We’re not supposed to understand it!!”

That was a long time ago.

In the Socrates Method the teacher directs the pupils to learn together from their textbook.

The only question ever asked, at first of a particular pupil, but inviting the whole class to respond, is: “What do think that means?”

Begin with the youngest class on their first day. Once they are used to it, once they have begun to realise ‘THIS IS HOW I CAN LEARN!’ you and they will find lessons more and more joyful, more and more effective.

There isn’t space for more here. A full explanation with be found in ‘Core Material’ on the website www.gardenofdemocracy.org. Make sure that your school board and the school directors, and the parents association approve of giving it a trial for a month. After a month, ask the pupils if they want to continue. This is what Professor Feynman would advise you to do!

And, finally: please stop imagining that the US can imitate Finland.

Some years ago I able to ask Finland’s Cultural Attaché is London why her country’s pupils are regularly so much more successful than those of any other Western country.

“Well,” she began slowly, “Of course, they are nearly all culturally homogeneous; they are nearly all from middle-class families; they all speak one language; they are all academically ambitious – and they all do their homework; and finally,” she ended, “they all have a healthy diet.”

No more comparisons, please.


Colin Hannaford, Oxford.


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