Lessons from the 19th century

I am posting this on Christmas Eve. It is taken from Section 5.8 in ‘Learning Matters‘, and is best read by the fire with a glass of mulled wine.

The Reverend Richard Dawes graduated from Cambridge, and became a mathematical tutor and bursar. He was something of a radical and upset his academic peers by advocating the admission of dissenters to the university.  In 1837, he left Cambridge to become a country vicar in the parish of King’s Somborne in Hampshire.

He adopted a novel approach to teaching based on engaging pupils through the examples of the ‘common things’ found in their everyday lives, which were used as objects of study and experimentation. In this he was anticipating Piaget and the later developmentalists in his emphasis on grounding lessons in practical activities to provide a ‘concrete’ foundation for progression to abstract theorising. Having his pupils enthusiastically undertake practical activities in groups indicates a social approach quite different from the normal punishment driven, authoritarian instruction and repetition typical of the period that is so powerfully described in the contemporary works of Charles Dickens.

Dawes’ methods were extremely successful and gained the approval of leading national figures of the day in relation to the developing English education system.

James Bartholomew, describes him as follows in The Welfare State We’re In (Politico 2004):

Dawes took his pupils to the Roman road from Old Sarum to Winchester. He gave special attention to the way people lived at different periods – what sort of houses they had, what they ate and how they were clothed. He taught nature through the direct observation of local plants and trees, and through the study of birds and their migration. Under the supervision of the assistant master, the pupils kept records of barometric pressure and temperature. They kept a journal in which they recorded events such as the arrival of the first swallow, the coming of the cuckoo, the earliest pear and apple blossom and the first ears of wheat or barley. . .

In mathematics the older boys learnt algebra and the subject matter of the first three books of Euclid. Again they used actual objects known to them – surveying the land around them and measuring in a carpenter’s shop.

Dawes proudly wrote: ‘Writing in my study, I heard a noise of joyous voices, which I found proceeded from half-a-dozen boys, who after school hours, had come to measure my garden-roller.’ They wanted to practise calculating the weight of a cylinder using measurements of the size and knowledge of the specific gravity of the material from which it was made.

It is clear that Dawes could not be criticised for any lack of ambition in what he expected his relatively poor rural children to comprehend.

In 1847 he published his masterpiece, which is a teachers’ guide to how to implement his methods: Suggestive Hints towards improved Secular Instruction. Dawes insisted on cheap editions being widely available. Many editions were published. The 1857 7th edition can be viewed on-line:

The scope of the book can be judged from the subtitle: Intended for the use of schoolmasters and teachers in our elementary schools, for those engaged in the private instruction at home, and others taking an interest in national education. This is an extract from the Introduction on p. 25:

It is a fact almost unaccountable, and certainly curious to reflect upon, how few there are, even in any class of life, educated or uneducated, who are acquainted with the philosophical principles of those things which they see in action every day of their lives, and which are in so many ways administering to the wants of social life, – truths easily understood when explained by experiment, and so important in themselves to mankind, that the names of the discoverers of them are handed down from one generation to another for the admiration of future ages, and as the great benefactors of their species.

How very true, and how little has changed!

This book is remarkable, not just for its advanced approach to teaching and learning, but for its vast subject range, from English, through the humanities and the arts, to maths and science, demonstrating great scholarship and eclecticism in every subject area combined with a consistent pedagogic wisdom that pervades every chapter. As a retired teacher I continue to be inspired by it, and would dearly wish to repeat some of his lesson ideas. It should be compulsory reading for every trainee teacher today.

Dawes’s village school made such a national impression that he was invited to write texts for teacher training. He was later appointed Dean of Hereford Cathedral. George Eliot described his face as so intelligent and benignant that children might grow good by looking at it” (Oxford DNB).

Unfortunately however the enlightened example of Dawes did not herald a new wave of such progressive and effective teaching, and was snuffed out and largely forgotten following political changes later in the century.  By the early 1860s, an economy-minded Liberal government wanted the state to get value for money. Grant payments were linked to pupils’ success in basic tests in reading, writing and arithmetic. The system was dubbed ‘payment by results’.

The following is taken from Education in England: a brief history by Derek Gillard (2011):

A provision was introduced by the Committee of Council on Education into the Revised Code for 1862 (often called ‘Lowe’s Code’ after the Committee’s vice-president who devised it).

The result of this regulation was the organisation of elementary schools on the basis of annual promotion. Classes in the senior department were named standards I to VI, roughly corresponding to ages 7 to 12.

Right from the start there was much opposition to these arrangements. Teachers objected partly to the method of testing, but mainly to the principle of ‘payment by results’ because it linked money for schools with the criterion of a minimum standard. Thus the higher primary work  which was beginning to appear before 1861 in the best elementary schools (My note: for example as in Dawes’ school at Kings Somborne) was seriously discouraged by Lowe’s Code. The curriculum became largely restricted to the three Rs, and the only form of practical instruction that survived was needlework.

Furthermore, the standards themselves were defective because they were based not on an experimental enquiry into what children of a given age actually knew, but on an a priori notion of what they ought to know. They largely ignored the wide range of individual capacity, and the detailed formulations for the several ages were not always precise or appropriate.

The philosophy of this dark period was shockingly close to the ideology of marketisation that now dominates the education system of England and the US. How can recent government education policy be so ignorant not just of how children learn, but of the history of English education itself?

Fans of Charles Dickens will be reminded of the wretched pupils at the mercy of Thomas Gradgrind in ‘Hard Times’.

Although gloriously over the top, Thomas exemplifies the absurdity of the ‘knowledge based’ curriculum that is seeing a revival in our Academies and Free Schools. It is also worth comparing Gradgrind’s pure form of ‘bucket filling’ as a theory of learning, with the richness of developmental practice in Richard Dawes’ school in Kings Somborne.

The dates are interesting. Hard Times was first published in 1854. Dawes’ masterpiece, Suggestive Hints towards improved Secular Instruction was first published in 1847. The historical pedagogical tussle between the Dawes and Gradgrind approaches was resolved firmly in favour of Gradgrind.

The darkest aspects of that history are  being repeated 150 years later.

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