Rousseauian nonsense revisited

A few days ago Greg Ashman released the proverbial cat amongst the Early Years pigeons with this tweet:

greg gibb

Early Years practitioners were a bit miffed and responded robustly; there were several requests for more detail about the ‘Rousseauian nonsense’. Greg obliged in a blogpost.

He opens with a paragraph on Rousseau’s ‘work of fiction’, Émile. He goes on to contrast guidelines requiring the avoidance of formal teaching in Early Years, with evidence for its efficacy, referring to Geary’s theory of biologically primary and secondary knowledge, and  advocates a balance between play and formal teaching. Many of Greg’s posts are informative and constructive, but this one left me feeling uneasy.  I’ll start with the ‘Rousseauian’ element.

Rousseauian

Émile is indeed a ‘work of fiction’ in that it’s written as a novel – and a rambling, sometimes rather incoherent novel at that. Voltaire was typically scathing. Following its publication, Rousseau’s books were banned in Geneva and France and he went on the run to avoid arrest. Obviously, the strength of this reaction wasn’t simply down to a poor writing style or his advocating following a child’s interests.

What Rousseau challenged in Émile was authoritarianism. He’d grown up in Calvinist Geneva, later converted to Catholicism, and had seen the impact on children who’d been educated under both systems. He’d also seen the children of peasants and artisans, who lacked a formal education but were often more contented and self-assured.

Calvinism and Catholicism both used the idea of original sin to justify a strict approach to child-rearing and education. Rousseau argued that despite sin, Nature remained God’s creation. If God created children to develop in the way they did, it made far more sense for education to go with the child’s God-given nature, than to go against it.

In one section of Émile, “The Creed of the Savoyard Priest”, Rousseau abandons his novelistic approach and tackles Descarte’s model of reason head-on, in an insightful essay setting out the questions about perception, cognition, reasoning, consciousness, truth, free will and the existence of religions, that perplexed the thinkers of his day. It was the only section Voltaire thought worth publishing.

But you’d never know that to read Greg’s impression of ‘Rousseauian’. Instead he highlights a ‘central tension’ in ‘educational progressivism’ where Rousseau acts as a puppet master ostensibly following Emile’s interests whilst manipulating them behind the scenes. That tension exists only if your model of education is that it must be either adult-led or child-led. In Rousseau’s framework, the child needs to learn certain things about the world, but can do so in a way that makes sense to them. There is no tension because the teacher and the child are working together; not either/or, but both/and.

Émile is about a one-to-one education and some teachers would argue that it’s impossible to teach like that in a class of thirty children. It probably would be unworkable in a normative education system that ‘expects’ children to know specific things at a specific age, but Montessori schools have been using this approach successfully for a century, and a variant worked well at the primary I attended in the 1960s – class sizes 16 (5-6s), 24 (7-8s) and 35 (9-11s).  What Greg means by ‘Rousseauian’ is essentially a caricature of what Rousseau was saying.

Nonsense

I agree that there’s a lot of nonsense in education, and Early Years is no exception, but what Greg refers to is an antipathy to ‘formal learning’ embedded in government guidelines, contrary to the evidence supporting ‘formal teaching methods’ in developing the foundations of academic skills.  What he appears to be saying is that Rousseau came up with a daft, inconsistent idea about education, and Early Years teachers are told Rousseau was right, so they should avoid formal learning as it could be harmful.

This is again a caricature. Anyone who’s taught young children will know that a major obstacle to them acquiring academic skills is their immaturity. They have immature visual and auditory discrimination, motor control, impulse control, social skills, and awareness of how the world works. Those skills develop very effectively through play (you can see it happening), and Early Years settings almost invariably use directed play to help all children develop the skills they’ll need. There’s no tension in the play being directed, either via instruction or setting up a particular environment, because what the teacher and children do is complementary.

It wouldn’t surprise me if some early years teachers advocate undirected play and/or feel that any hint of formal learning is harmful, but my guess is they’d be few and far between. Most early years teachers use formal teaching, but it might look different to what Greg envisages. How effective is formal teaching until children can control their arms, legs, fingers, tongue, attention, bowel and bladder?

Criticism of ideas

Greg says his original tweet was ‘criticism of ideas rather than people’, and claims ‘many responses to it were of a personal nature’ implying that he wasn’t entitled to an opinion because he’s not an Early Years teacher. He says he would welcome opinions on secondary maths teaching and if people are wrong, will happily point out why they are wrong. All very reasonable, except that…

  • I’m not clear how “there’s a lot of Rousseauian nonsense in Early Years” is a ‘criticism of ideas’. To me, it looks more like a throwaway comment that indirectly impugns both Rousseau and Early Years teaching without explaining why. Which appears to be a bit ad hominem itself.
  • The responses Greg screenshots don’t question his entitlement to an opinion. Instead they question is his entitlement to sling mud at Early Years teachers without explanation.
  • The responses were pointing out why they thought he, Early Years teacher or not, was wrong.

Greg’s blogpost offered him an opportunity to justify his comment about ‘Rousseauian nonsense’. Turns out it’s based on a caricature of Rousseau and of Early Years teaching, and any complaints about the comment, regardless of their validity, are treated as ad hominem.  Is there any hope for constructive debate?