Classical liberal in the classroom?

Miss Laura Mathews, Assistant Headteacher
Miss Laura Mathews, Assistant Headteacher

“Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else and root out everything else.”

Charles Dickens, Hard Times 1854

The learning of facts is often parodied with reference to Charles Dickens’ character Mr Gradgrind, with the word ‘Gradgrindian’ being used to describe a classroom in which knowledge is learnt ‘passively’ and without any kind of ‘understanding’. But this parody does not do justice to what a knowledge-rich education can offer. As Robert Peal wrote in a previous post, knowledge is rich with connections, and the more one knows, the more connections one is able to draw.

The Gradgrindian stereotype of the mindless acquisition of knowledge is a far cry from the productive and studious classrooms we aim to create at the West London Free School. Here the emphasis is very much on pupils’ knowledge retention and work production: we expect pupils to read deeply, to write extensively and to think widely about the physical and human world in which they live.

To create this shared classroom culture, our lessons centre around our ten key principles:

  1. Every lesson is built on a foundation of core knowledge drawn from, in the words of Matthew Arnold, “The best which has been thought and said” (Culture and Anarchy, 1875).
  2. The teacher meets and greets each class at the door and dismisses each class at the door.
  3. Every lesson provides pupils with the opportunity to retrieve knowledge from memory.
  4. Routine quizzes are cumulative, with knowledge tested and new knowledge interleaved between.
  5. In every lesson time is given for the purpose of reflection and consolidation. This might include reviewing teacher feedback, establishing links between new knowledge and prior knowledge, redrafting and improving output.
  6. Extended periods of time in lessons are dedicated to producing work and mastering new skills.
  7. Literacy and numeracy are explicitly taught and corrected in all relevant lessons.
  8. There is a no hands up approach: where needed pupils should discuss a possible answer and then the teacher asks a pupil.
  9. The teacher chooses who reads aloud in lesson, not other pupils.
  10. We encourage direct instruction through teacher talk.

We ask pupils to enter class formally, expecting to be challenged and to have knowledge drawn from every faculty of their mind. They spend extended periods of time working by themselves, producing essays and examples that are coherent and thoughtful, because they have been given time to do them properly. Re-drafts and mistakes are seen as vital elements of the learning process, and rather than correcting every mistake, staff correct things once. The onus is then on the pupils to seek out repeat mistakes and self correct.

The striking thing is that most pupils seem to like it: taking the time to reflect and correct, practising new skills and learning new information. Our shared teaching approach develops individuals with the capacity and passion for lifelong learning.

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