Battle in Print: Pupils taking over the classroom

Michele Ledda, 1 October 2006

Pupils are not taking over the classroom, bureaucracy is, and it is doing so through the use of child-centred initiatives. The same politicians and educational administrators who claim to be modernising and democratising an old-fashioned education system, the same people who claim to be concerned by the excessive and arbitrary power of the teacher to talk to pupils and transmit knowledge, are also introducing draconian laws that give teachers the power to search pupils for weapons and are trying to introduce compulsory drug tests in schools. Let’s not be fooled by the nice, child-centred, therapeutic language. Its main function is to lend authority to a much more intrusive and authoritarian system than any we have ever known, one that requires complete submission from teachers and pupils alike.

Initiatives aimed at giving children a voice have nothing to do with democracy. There are no pupils marching in the streets, organising themselves into groups, asking for more power, putting forward policy proposals on how to run the education system. Pupils do not particularly want to be involved – they haven’t strong opinions on these matters. It is the adults managing the education system who are desperate to involve them. Pupil participation is so desperately sought because adults feel unable to educate children. Today adults often feel they have nothing to teach, no values or knowledge of the world worth transmitting to the next generation.

Adults experience this as an unsolvable problem, so instead of tackling it head on and saying, ‘We feel useless and don’t believe in anything,’ they have devised educational policies and theories that turn the problem into a virtue. Adult alienation and abdication of responsibility for children’s education are presented as modernisation and democratisation of the education system. Adults are abandoning children but telling them they are setting them free.

The inability of adults to educate is often displaced onto children themselves.  Instead of saying, ‘We are unable to teach,’ educators argue that modern children are much more difficult than in the past. Hence the proliferation of a host of behavioural and learning disorders from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia to simple prejudices, sometimes couched in scientific language. Children’s behaviour is thus explained through the weather or food and drink ingested, or even the spatial arrangement of the classroom – modern equivalents of believing that the moon cycles or the movements of the stars can influence human events. Crank theories help disoriented politicians and administrators to turn the inability of the system to educate into an inability of the child to learn. They make an intractable problem disappear. Even if there is some scientific basis to these explanations, their main function is to deflect attention from the central task of education, the transmission of knowledge to the next generation.

A particularly important aspect of the bureaucratisation of education is the attack on the transmission of knowledge. By changing the central role played by teachers as experts in their discipline, the education system is both able to undermine the authority of teachers and avoid the problem of providing the content of education, leaving bureaucracy in complete control.

Today most policy makers, educationalists, government agencies, quangos, professional bodies, head teachers, and even teachers, work under the assumption that the teacher’s main function is not to teach their subject. The view that they are experts who transmit their knowledge to pupils is regarded as arrogant, old-fashioned, authoritarian and unprofessional.

Officially, teachers still have a subject to teach. We have a national curriculum and examination syllabuses that specify what we should teach. In practice teachers still impart some subject knowledge, but in a cultural climate that is increasingly hostile to the transmission of knowledge. Some content remains, but mainly as a starting point for pupils’ activities, rather than to be learned.

The transmission of knowledge is seen as a potentially dangerous activity that risks damaging the child’s self-esteem and ‘violating the child’s nature’ (Dewey). The clearest manifestation of this fear in official language is that the verb teaching is seldom allowed to wander unsupervised from its guardian learning. Teaching and learning are presented as near contrasting activities to be carefully balanced. Rather than being connected by their common object, subject knowledge, both teaching and learning have now been disconnected from their object.

The ideological weapon bureaucrats use pragmatically against the transmission of knowledge is the constructivist theory of knowledge. This theory almost completely dominates most standardised teaching methods and the conformist way of teaching called ‘best practice’. Constructivist educationalists oppose the old-fashioned view of knowledge transmission, which they call ‘objectivist’:

Objectivists believe in the existence of reliable knowledge about the world. As learners, the goal is to gain this knowledge; as educators, to transmit it. Objectivism further assumes that learners gain the same understanding from what is transmitted…Learning therefore consists of assimilating that objective reality. The role of education is to help students learn about the real world (Jonassen 1991, quoted in Murphy 1997).

They propose instead a theory of learning where ‘knowledge as a whole is problematized, not just the learner’s subjective knowledge, including mathematical knowledge and logic’ (Ernest 1995, quoted in Murphy 1997).

Constructivists see knowledge as something to be constructed by children themselves, a subjective characteristic that develops in the child, rather than an objective body of knowledge about the world that is worth learning. We are now in the ludicrous position of knowing more about the world than any previous generation while believing that we have nothing valuable to teach our children, other than the dogma that objective knowledge of the world is impossible and therefore any subjective view or any socially constructed view is equally valid.

It is my contention that constructivism is so dominant, not so much because anyone strongly believes in it, but because it provides a powerful explanation for our loss of confidence in our ability to control our lives by confronting problems in the real world. By recasting knowledge as subjective perception rather than objective truth, it helps to justify our inability to exercise judgment and responsibility for our common world and our retreat into our own private lives. Modern education is turning away from the world and becoming more and more introspective. Pupils are being trained to learn first and foremost about themselves.

It’s all very well to problematise knowledge at university level and to explore to what extent we can say that reliable knowledge about the world exists, but it’s problematic to confuse primary and secondary school children with epistemological subtleties when first they need to grasp reading, writing and counting. Whatever the disagreements among adults about the nature of knowledge, I think we can assume that compared with children’s spectacular ignorance, adults do have reliable knowledge about the world.

Both constructivism and the bureaucratisation of education are a response to our experience of loss of control over human events. Constructivism turns the realisation that we don’t know everything into a panic that makes us doubt everything we know. It is the panic of a paranoid mind that is unable to assess which interpretations of events are more likely to be true and tends to find causal relations between events that are only loosely connected. Many commentators and policy makers express this feeling when they remind us that today we live in a globalised world where ‘everything is interconnected’.

Bureaucratisation is not a conspiracy of state bureaucrats who want to rob teachers of their professional autonomy in order to be in complete control. Rather, it is an attempt to deal with uncertainty by elevating risk-avoidance to the main principle for action. As everyone from the top down works first and foremost to ‘cover their backs’, people tend to apply rules and regulations to the letter instead of trusting their own judgment of the situation.

The recent case of the Rev Alan Barrett, who lost his post as a school governor for kissing a pupil on the forehead, is typical. Everyone recognised that the kiss was completely innocent, yet many agreed that the vicar should have known better, including the vicar himself. Rev Barrett’s crime was to have followed his own perfectly good instinctive judgment, and to have foolishly engaged in unregulated human interaction. One teaching union even asked for more regulation so that people are told exactly how to behave so they can’t go wrong. The message is clear: personal judgement should be ditched for an amoral stance that follows the rules. If they are unclear, ask for more regulation.

Teachers who do complain about bureaucratisation and their lack of educational freedom often frame their complaints in the language of victimhood, which is incompatible with professional autonomy. A recent protest by teaching unions ATL and NASWT against increasing Ofsted regulation typically claimed ‘management bullying’, with ‘lesson observation often being done in a punitive rather than empowering way’.

Politicians on all sides recognise the problem and from time to time they try to devise policies to free teachers from red tape. They seem genuinely concerned, but they are caught up in a process of regulation that cannot allow the exercise of professional judgment. On 5 January 2006, Baroness Perry, newly appointed by David Cameron as official adviser on public services, announced ‘we believe there is far too much bureaucracy…I’m keen to give professionals back their professional autonomy’ (Guardian 5.1.2006). Intention is contradicted by actions. Four days later, Cameron announced a new initiative ‘signalling more aggressive government intervention in classroom teaching if the Tories came to power’ (Guardian 9.1.2006). Shadow education secretary David Willetts reportedly confirmed that ‘there was an important role for government in day-to-day classroom activity and in ensuring that teachers used the best methods’ (Bennett 9.1.2006).

Sometimes people blame the ideas produced by the child-centred 60s for the situation we are in now, but in 1958 Hannah Arendt already noted all the main trends of the democratisation of education, which suggests that we are confronted with a long-term historical process that goes beyond the politics of left and right. Among other things, she noted that the crisis in education originated in our loss of confidence in dealing with problems in the public sphere of politics. ‘Modern man,’ she wrote,

...could find no clearer expression for his dissatisfaction with the world, for his disgust with things as they are, than by his refusal to assume… responsibility for all this. It is as though parents daily said: ‘In this world even we are not securely at home; how to move about in it, what to know, what skills to master, are mysteries to us too. You must try to make out as best you can; in any case you are not entitled to call us to account. We are innocent, we wash our hands of you’ (Arendt 1958).

The current process of bureaucratisation in education may be presented as democratisation and modernisation, but is nothing more than adults washing their hands of children.


Michele Ledda is a teacher


Arendt, H. (1958). ‘The crisis in education’. Partisan Review: 493-513. Reprinted in Arendt, H. (1993[1961]) Between Past and Future. London, Penguin.

Bennett, R. (9.1.2006). Tories promise to bring back ability sets to classroom. The Times.

Ernest, P. (1995). ‘The one and the many’. L. Steffe & J. Gale (eds) Constructivism in Education. New Jersey, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc: 459-486.

Guardian (9.1.2006). Extend ability setting to every school, says Cameron. Guardian Unlimited.

Guardian (5.1.2006). Educationalist to head up Tory public services review. Guardian Unlimited.

Jonassen, D. (1991). ‘Evaluating constructivist learning’. Educational Technology 36(9): 28-33.

Murphy, E. (1997). Constructivism from philosophy to practice.

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