What suggestions are made by J. Dover Wilson HMI, in his pamphlet published by the Board of Education (1921, but written in 1918) for teachers implementing the 1918 H.A.L. Fisher Continuation Education Act?
This is important because like New Ideals in Education conferences, from 1914, this was not a 'talking house of philosophy and ideology', it was a pamphlet for a community of practice, but unlike today, practice not based solely on outcomes, but founded on values and philosophy. This pamphlet embeds the suggested practice into the current needs, the vision of the 1918 Education Act, the attempts to respond to the dehumanising effects of the industrial revolution, and the old ethic that human beings are makers, makers of culture, art, communities, objects and ultimately themselves.
To Wilson the teacher is the interpreter and voice promoting the views of William Morris.
“‘If art which is now sick is to live and not die, it must in the future be of the people, for the people, by the people; it must understand all and be understood by all.’ These are the words of a dreamer, our greatest of modern times, William Morris, artist and craftsman. If, not an isolated prophet, but a whole generation could dream such dreams they would come true, for what a people desires in its heart that its hand will fashion. The humanistic teacher in the continuation school stands between the prophet and the people, and can make them dream his dream if he have the will. In any case let him write up over the door of his class-room: Nihil humani a me alienum puto. And if the students ask what the words mean, let him reply, ‘They mean that we must try to make poetry out of the spinning-mules.’"
His starting point for teaching the teenager is to gain the consent of the student. For the teaching of history, to gain the conscious permission of the pupil he starts with the jobs of these part-time, or evening, continuation students, teenagers, who for the first time, had a right to schooling.
He states that the consent of the student must be obtained to engage in the study of history. He sees that ‘academic history’, that does not relate to the present life, culture, work of a place or the student, will not gain consent. That the history can only engage the teenager if they can relate to it, if it can tell them something about their lives, cultures and society now, if it can help them to understand themselves.
“…Such history is ‘academic,’ that is to say its aim is knowledge divorced from reality. It has its uses, and they are manifold, but it is out of place in the continuation school, where history will be studied with a very practical end in view, viz., to explain the students (and their immediate surroundings) to themselves.” P63
He sees two aspects of history teaching, one is the academic, and the other is the history that helps the child to develop their own identities and relationships with the world. He has effectively created a revolution in teaching, for he is separating the teaching in the school from what might be held as the holy grail of education or learning, the gaining of knowledge, the professor and researcher of the University. The ‘founder of a new knowledge’, quoting Matthew Arnold about converting the ‘harsh, uncouth, difficult, abstract, professional, exclusive’ knowledge into ‘sweetness and light’ for all instead of ‘the clique of the cultivated and learned.’
One New Ideals community member, a school manager, reports her initiative to re-engage the students in her school with history, that had up to then failed to create any enthusiasm from the girl students. She asked them to interview their parents and neighbours, and to relate the stories of life, change, and generational differences with the history of their village or community, and linking that to the history of the nation. Her experiment worked, and the history teacher reported a greater engagement with their history lessons.
Wilson suggests a different starting point, that of the different work roles the teenage students have when not at the continuation school.
He starts with the children’s jobs:
“The point can best be illustrated by taking an imaginary example. At the hour marked ‘History’ on the timetable the humanistic teacher meets a class of lads in the borough of X for the first time. He will start by asking, in an informal way, how each boy earns his living, noting the occupation down for future reference. He will then explore the matter further by getting the students to describe their jobs in detail, a procedure which will incidentally give him valuable insight into the quality of their English and their powers of expression…” p63
The use of questioning, of interviewing the children about their lives, their work, would ‘catch the attention of the students and place them on a footing of intimacy with the teacher.’ Two to three lessons would be devoted to interviewing the young men in the example, using their experiences and present lives as the subject of the lessons. This would be followed-up with writing and drawing. Then looking at the relationship between the different work the boys do, if they are involved in the same industry, whose work comes first in the process order. If they had not noticed then they may have to observe, when next at work, how the processes work. The teacher also raises the issue of the relation of different jobs in different trades, without giving an answer.
“From the job the class will then proceed to the firm, and to the industry as a whole, while at the same time attention will be directed to the borough and to the relics of the past (churches, customs, institutions and what not) which it contains.” P64
This was the method to engage the young students, to gain their consent to the learning and to motivate them, but also it is about learning as a process of helping us to build our identities and sense of who we are, and why. Something that Dr Arthur Brock, Wilfred Owen’s therapist for shell shock, advocated, the concept of work as therapy, but work that is embedded in local history and culture, and linked to a sense of making and creating. This was a process he used with the soldier patients, and in a New Ideals in Education Conference 1919 he urged teachers to use similar methods to address the dehumanising effects of industrialisation.
This method, starting with the immediate life of the student, then going backward in terms of living memory, and further backwards to times in which we must look at the evidence, is very similar to the modern methods of using overlapping time-lines of the present generation, with their parents and then their grandparents, to develop in children a relatedness to history and a sense of perspective of time.
“If the ground is carefully prepared in this way, the class will be ready for their history course. They will have come to realise that their work and immediate environment are not only intimately related, but also the last links in a chain of causation which goes back to a remote past; and they will be anxious, or at any rate willing, to investigate the past…” p64
He also advocated the use of biography, as it "has a special appeal for the hero-worship of the boy and girl". With some interesting examples “Something might also be made of the lives of social reformers such as Owen, Cobbett, Oastler, Shaftsbury, and Kingsley.” P66
A Miss J. Noakes, member of the New Ideals community was voted onto the Council of the Historical Association in 1918, when she addresses the annual meeting on ‘The Effect of the War on the Teaching of History’ p19-21:
“The teacher of history has had a much easier and yet an infinitely more difficult task before her during these last three years easier in the letter, more difficult in the spirit.
“It has been easier, inasmuch as the subject was now absolutely living. History to-day interests not only the majority of the school, but also those girls who are naturally more drawn to other school subjects; that is to say that every member of the community has come to see that history is no longer a ‘form subject’ a mere story of the past but the living interpreter of the present. For the first time, even the younger girls appreciate the working of cause and effect, they see the close interaction of the parts upon the whole, and realise the continuity of the present with the past in their efforts to find an answer to the question, ‘When did the war begin?’”
Again focusing on history as a way of engaging the present with the past, and how the lives of the children and relatives, and communities, are affected.
With the limitations on time, on money, on the competition between technical training, and the various subjects of the curriculum, Wilson does not resort to the old adage that schools are only for the training of future employees, but states:
“A little history and geography, a few scenes from Shakespeare with a handful of poems, some practice in the writing and speaking of the mother-tongue, a library of juvenile books – is this the mouse that emerges from all our mountain of talk about the new era which continuation school is to inaugurate? What of Music and Art? The impatient idealist will enquire. What of that larger history, of which every modern child should know something, the history of the universe and of mankind, the history which involves astronomy, geology, biology, anthropology? The answer to such questions is in the statute-book: ‘Subject as hereinafter provided, all young persons shall attend such continuation schools… for three hundred and twenty hours in each year.’ We must cut our coat according to the cloth, and the amount of cloth is very strictly rationed.” P116
So, in promoting the use of the limited time allotted due to the compromises of the 1918 Act Wilson concludes with how we should start the children on their learning adventure, and as Sir William Mather had stated about the elementary school, that success be measure not only in happiness but in children becoming avid learners:
“The view taken in this memorandum is that (1) some training in self-expression, (2) some acquaintance with the origin and significance of the student’s ‘job’ in life, (3) an outlet for imagination, especially through the medium of dramatic representation, which of all forms of art possesses the most universal appeal, and lastly (4) an opportunity to know the value and use of books as a resource for leisure hours, constitute the bare elements of humanism, which no youth in a modern community can do without.” P116
Let’s end with how the New Ideals in Education community members saw their teaching, not as efficient management methods, not as ways of motivating disaffected children, not as making complicated subjects approachable, not as gaining exam results but with the facilitation of a young member of a species that is born a learner, that seeks a sense of identity and relationship with the world, that celebrates our humanity:
“But more important even than the subjects selected is the spirit in which the teaching is conceived. The Continuation School, at least on the humanistic side, will be concerned not so much with the communication of facts as with the encouragement of habits of mind. That the process of learning is an Odyssey which teaches the voyager to exclaim:
'I am part of all that I have met
'Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
'Gleams that untravell’d world, whose margin fades
'For ever and for ever when I move;'
“that the reading of literature is not a difficult accomplishment reserved for the ‘cultured person’, but the participation in a pageant of frolic and song and high adventure, headed by Poesy herself, all glorious within and her clothing of wrought gold – these are the two lessons which humanism in the continuation school has to convey. And if it succeeds in doing this, everything else will be added unto it.” P117