Saturday, 3 January 2015

Margaret McMillan and the pedagogy of nurture

“We arrived on a stormy night in November. Coming out from the entrance of the Midland station, we saw, in a swuther of rain, the shining statue of Richard Oastler standing in the Market Square, with two black and bowed little mill-workers standing at his knee.
Next morning we awoke in a new and quite unknown world. It was a Sunday, and the smoke cloud that usually enveloped the city had lifted. Tall dark chimneys reaching skywards like monstrous trees, made dark outlines against the faint grey of the sunny morning. On weekdays these big stone monsters belched forth smoke as black as pitch that fell in choking clouds.”

That’s Margaret McMillan describing her arrival in Bradford 1893. She made the journey that I took regularly when I lived in Bradford from the station over to Manningham Lane. She turned left just after Toys R Us to get home, I turned right. There aren’t many of the cobbles she would’ve walked over left, but there are some. Bradford is one of those cities whose history is  close to the surface. The chimneys don’t belch much any more but they still cast their shadows. Richard and his mill kids still stand by the market. Kids still struggle to pay attention in class cos their bellies are empty but they do get a free school meal once a day if they need it. That's down to Margaret.

Margaret couldn’t exactly be described as a teacher. Her decision to dedicate her life to education was strategic - she was a socialist waging a war on inequality.

“Outside (as well as in the homes of those in the camp) stalks the spectre of famine… No camp-school is worth anything that has not as its goal the making of such things impossible tomorrow.”

Margaret was a founder member of the Independent Labour Party, but saw many of the barriers to a fairer world play out in the lives of children. From her own experience she could see that education could be liberating, but children couldn’t learn if they were starving, or suffering from a lack of basic healthcare. So she lobbied the state for free school meals in Bradford and set up school clinics and baths. Working on this led her to see that prevention was also vital so she set up ‘night camps’ in Deptford where kids got fresh air and restful sleep. When this idea proved successful, she started an open-air nursery and then a school combining the health giving properties of outdoor life with a radical new pedagogy of nurture that impressed even sceptical state inspectors. But a single project couldn’t help everyone. Heart breaking at having to turn people away, Margaret shifted focus again. She lobbied tirelessly for the state provision of nursery schools to give poor children a solid foundation for their development. In the last years of her life she set up a teacher training college to improve the quality of teaching across the country. It was the first college to extend the training period from two years to three, and prioritised giving students experience in the classroom - decisions driven by her conviction that teaching was an important job requiring quality insight and experience.

As someone whose career path has followed a meandering and at times obscured logic, Margaret's life story is a source of inspiration. Praxis as a lifestyle choice. See a problem, work at it. Let it change you. From that new perspective, you see another problem. Work at it, let it change you. Let your values lead the way.

“The work seemed to be always opening out and finding a way for itself, almost, as it seemed, without our design or desire. Like a tiny streamlet it found its way.”

 Ellie Julings @ellietrees

The Life of Rachel McMillan by Margaret McMillan. J.M. Dent and Sons, London (1927)
Margaret Macmillan: Portrait of a Pioneer by Elizabeth Bradburn. Routledge (April 1989)

Sunday, 30 November 2014

United we stand - Rosa Parks and communities of practice

When my friend @kaysoclearn asked me to write a piece for 'Lost Women', I immediately wondered what Rosa Parks had been like as a teacher.  In recent years, she has been rehabilitated as a powerful and intentional civil rights activist - something she's always been for black communities, whilst white commentators were rewriting her direct action as that of a tired old lady.  In fact, Rosa was 42 when she wouldn't stand up on the bus, not 'tired' but 'tired of standing up'.  Such is the racism of historical narrative.
We know about Rosa as a student.  Both before and after the bus protest, she went on courses at The Highlander Centre in Tennessee, an organisation which still exists and thrives to this day, though government bullying during the McCarthy years and beyond ensured that it never transmitted itself physically into branches outside Tennessee.  Have a look at the '21st Century Highlander' booklet on The Highlander Center website when you need an infusion of hope.  The photograph shows Rosa in 1957 with Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy, the singer and activist Pete Seeger and Charis, the daughter of Myles Horton, one of the Center's founders.  When I see that photograph I think as a mother: despite all the challenges faced in those times, what a wonderful place for that child to grow up. 

After 1955 Rosa herself was submitted to a public scrutiny she often found unbearable and at times she publicly regretted her act of protest, though she never gave up her work for equality.  Although her biographer Jeanne Theoharis refutes the liberal view of Rosa as 'gentle' (and consequently an unthreatening and upstanding symbol of revolt), it seems certain that, although strong-willed, Rosa was no extrovert.  Reflecting on her quiet potential for world-changing action resonates with much current thinking around leadership, inspired by Susan Cain and others:  the power of introverts and of distributed leadership that powers from the middle ground.  Whilst the public oratory of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X was also crucial in the struggle against oppression, Rosa's standfast action holds its own, giving hope to those of us who believe in a model of education which isn't just about the 'heroic' model of teaching. Rosa's action was intentional; in her social relations, her study at Highlander and her involvement with The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) she prepared herself to take the opportunity when it arose.  And she must have known that she could present an eminently respectable front to the struggle, having been aware of a similar 'bus protest' by 15 year old Claudette Colvin nine months previously. As Colvin was a pregnant 'child', she was not considered to be a suitable poster girl, although she was one of four women to testify in the court case which brought an end to segregation on Alabama's buses (if not bus stops).  Colvin later talked about feeling disappointed by this ("Like having my Christmas in January"), though not angry; she recognised the pragmatism of the decision.

So what can we learn about teaching from Rosa, who quite possibly never wrote a session plan in her life?  Firstly, that education was her means of strengthening courage, so that when the "equality gift" came along, she could seize the moment.  Long before Highlander, Rosa had taken every opportunity of education that came her way, however disrupted.  Her own autobiography (written for children) gives the impression of a thoughtful woman, who observed what was happening around her:  the casual racism of even the admired Miss White of Miss White's School for Girls, the sexism endemic wherever she lived and worked (including the NAACP), the structural separation of society into 'white world' and 'black world'. The model of education she encountered at Highlander was only one experience of many which fed her thinking.  Myles Horton saw the job of Highlander as "multiply(ing) leadership for radical social change" (Chang, 2013 p.712) and Rosa's leadership was honed by all her experiences.  

In today's UK teachers are subject to many kinds of CPD, including Initial Teacher Training, pathetically little of which actively promotes critical thinking, though it pays lip-service to 'criticality'.  Lower level Awarding Body qualifications dumb teaching down a little further with each iteration; University programmes struggle to see beyond the 'canon' of dead white male psychologists, writing in the 20th century.  Teacher training itself is constantly undermined by ideologies that see teaching as the 'delivery' of that knowledge which will transform learners into the means of economic production.  Is there any wonder that when 'equalities gifts' come along, most teachers don't feel confident to grasp them?  Education was a privilege in Rosa's early years; it is heartbreaking to see what it has sometimes become now it is a 'right'.

Secondly, although Rosa was very much alone when she took her stand, she was operating from a community of practice, which she knew would support and strengthen her.  Her husband, Raymond Parks, was also very much involved in the civil rights movement and, outside the long hours she worked as a seamstress, Rosa's life was centred around a community of activists with a common cause.  Rosa's own role in this community, before she became a figurehead of it, was as secretary of the local NAACP branch, and the only woman member.  She played a vital pioneering role amongst the sometimes greater belligerence of those around her; activist circles were not immune to misogyny though her battles in this arena are less publicly recorded.  

As teachers, we operate in classrooms which have a kind of intimacy and even loneliness when the door is closed; those of us who fight the sausage factory approach to education would be quickly exhausted if we didn't have our own communities of practice to draw on.  Rosa's act of courage brought much disadvantage to her and her family; she was sacked from her job after the bus protest and left Montgomery for Detroit in search of work once the court case was won.  But in later life the karma of her action sustained her financially and enabled her to develop a number of initiatives; she donated much of the money she earned from public speaking to the Rosa L. Parks Scholarship Foundation and other causes advancing the empowerment of young people.  Her friendship with neighbour Elaine Eason Steel led to the founding of the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development in Detroit, which Ms Eason Steele runs to this day. 

Finally, Rosa's position as a leader of the civil rights movement is incontrovertible.  Modest she may have been, but she had a backbone of steel, having experienced oppression, discrimination and poverty to an extent that few people reading this can imagine.  From an early age, Rosa got herself organised.  It took her three attempts to be able to pass the voting test, despite her early experience of education but she did not quit.  In an age where people can mobilise themselves to queue for bargain TVs but not to exercise their democratic right of voting, Rosa's example is as powerful as it ever was.  As teachers, we are leaders too:  in the classroom (which does not mean being authoritarian) and - if we'll accept the challenge - within organisations which may well be moribund and subject to reactive leadership. Rosa is literally famous for standing up.  Maybe, as teachers, it is time to stand up too, instead of leaving it to others, for a pedagogy which is genuinely critical and transformational.

Lou Mycroft @TeachNorthern

Cain, Susan (2013) Quiet: the power of introverts in world that can't stop talking.  London.  Penguin.
Chang, Bo (2013) Education for Social Change:  Highlander education in the Appalachian Mountains and study circles in Sweden.  International journal of Lifelong Education.  32:6. 705-723.
Parks, Rosa (1992) Rosa Parks: My Story.  London.  Puffin.
Theoharis, Jeanne (2014) The Rebellious Life of Mrs Rosa Parks.  Boston, US.  Beacon Press.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Voices, amplified

There's been lots of interest in this project and I'm very excited to say that a number of fellow colleagues and tweeters have offered to write posts for this blog.

So upcoming posts will feature:

Rosa Parks - by Lou Mycroft @teachnorthern

Dorothy Heathcote and Harriet Finlay Johnson - by Tim Taylor @imagineinquiry

Margaret McMillan - by Ellie Julings @ellietrees

We are starting to build a fantastic list of names too - here's just a few for starters:

Grace Coyle
Louise Michel
Maria Montessori
Josephine Macalister Brew
Mary Wollstonecraft

We're just starting to scratch the surface so please do tweet or email me more of your suggestions and blog offers @KaySocLearn or

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Let's start a school - the voice of Helen Parkhurst

Throughout history, women have started schools. Some famously - Mary Wollstonecraft, the Bronte sisters, Maria Montessori... and others, lesser known, like Margaret McMillan - and Helen Parkhurst, who is the subject of this blog.  The world’s oldest university was started by a woman, too – not a fact that we hear about as often as we should. Fatima al-Fihri founded the very first University - of al-Qarawiyyin, in Fes, Morocco in 859.  Women have been stamping their mark on education for thousands of years – often fighting battles of inequality, or just quietly finding themselves able to do something amazing, sometimes through privilege, but also by seeking out like-minded, forward-thinking supporters and taking action where others did not.

Of course, women (being generally the primary care-givers) are also responsible for educating children every day, at home. As @francesbell pointed out (in response to my call for women educational theorists) – ‘I’m thinking of every mother through the arc of history who did everyday theorising of her children’s learning’.  From women who choose to home-school, to those who just naturally teach their kids through the course of the day, taking opportunities wherever they occur.

Men start schools and do all these other things too, of course – but the difference is that they are generally more highly regarded, recognised, and praised for it.  You only need to follow popular educators on Twitter to find evidence that women are still being side-lined, patronised and having their voices often literally silenced by the ‘mute’ button.   It’s so common, it’s almost accepted without question – woe-betide the woman who tries to make it a gender issue, however.  So when presented with the recommended reading list for the Cert Ed/PGCE course I teach, my first thoughts were ‘Why these writers? Why not others? Who is standing in the background just behind them?’  
A quick look at a university reference list won’t generally tell you anything about the writer’s gender - and gender is only one part of diversity, of course - but I would encourage students of every discipline to consider the diversity of what is recommended to them, and to ask questions like these.

My first 'lost voice' is Helen Parkhurst - contemporary of John Dewey, and founder of schools still operating all over the world today.

Helen Parkhurst

Image result for helen parkhurst imagesHelen Parkhurst was born in Wisconsin in January 1887.  By the age of 20 she had already been teaching for three years, and was creating her own pedagogical theory around individualised learning. Parkhurst later taught alongside Maria Montessori and worked with John Dewey, in a career that spanned six decades.

Helen didn't name her theories after herself but instead chose the name 'Dalton' for her teaching plan and later her first school (the name was taken from Dalton, Massachusetts, a town that she frequently visited).  The Dalton Plan was essentially a scheme aimed at helping children to achieve individual goals but in doing so, taking learning wider than the classroom – fostering collaborative skills, community and self-responsibility.

She used contracts to develop autonomy amongst her students, as well as making learning projects highly personalised. Her thinking was that, whenever a student is given responsibility for a particular piece of learning, he or she would instinctively seek the best way of achieving it. The notion of ownership would encourage rigour and application, and self-determination to see it through to the best of the student’s ability. Students are helped and guided through a process of coaching and peer-mentoring however - not just sent off with work to do and told to report back.

The Dalton plan organises schools into three work-strands:

Assignment  - students are provided with individualised learning projects according to ability and interest
Laboratory  - pupils are supported through one-to-one coaching and peer collaborative support to find the best means of achieving their learning goals
House -  lesson-based element where children are encouraged to learn as a community.

Helen defines differentiation (often a slippery concept) in this way:

 (In many traditional classrooms), sharp children are held back and dull children are pushed on, to the detriment of their mental powers, owing to the teacher’s effort to strike the problematical average…(and) how many class lessons have children to listen to which are boring and useless, and others where they are not sufficiently interested to ask a question? If we use class teaching and individual work in their proper places, the best results will follow.”

As educators, we hear lots about the skills needed for work today – the focus however, is often on the skills needed for yesterday. How much do our schools prepare children for modern ways of working, really?  Helen’s ideas are about collaborative working alongside individual planning and decision-making; in the Laboratory strand:

"Discussion helps to clarify [the student’s] ideas and also their plan of procedure.  When it comes to the end, the finished achievement takes on all the splendour of success.  It embodies all [the student] has thought and felt and lived during the time it has taken to complete.  This is real experience.  It is culture acquired through individual development and through collective co-operation.  It is no longer school - it is life.”
The Dalton Plan resonates with me in a lot of ways.   The emphasis on children as social beings and the holistic approach to teaching. The win/win/win when students learn as part of a wider community.  The importance of building self-responsibility and autonomy in students. And most of all the emphasis on individualised planning and learning.  

As I type this, my own daughters are playing schools upstairs, and it makes me think that, a
s teacher educators, we are all, in a way, starting our own school.  Better than that, we are enabling our student teachers to develop their own teacher identities and discover what THEY truly believe teaching and learning to be about.  In doing this, we are of course ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ – the old guard of educational theory, the progressive thinkers of more modern times, the scientists, philosophers and cod-psychologists who inform our thinking, but don’t determine all of it.  I'm adding Helen's thinking to my varied list of theorists in the belief that my teaching practice will all the richer for it.


Not surprisingly it was hard to find much about Helen and the Dalton Plan on-line. These are the best I could come up with in snatched moments - any additions would be very welcome.

Parkhurst, Helen (1922). Education on the Dalton Plan. New York: E. P. Dutton & Company retrieved at

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Lost pioneers

'Behind every man, there's a great woman.' Or so the tired, old cliche goes. As I looked at the reading list for the Cert Ed/PGCE qualification that I teach, I found myself asking - do we only read men because they were the best, most insightful theorists - or are there actually many women, standing just beside them, whose voices have been lost or edited out over the years?

I know what I believe.

Two weeks ago I watched the film 'Pride' at the cinema and asked myself a similar question.  How many amazing stories of the miners' strike have been lost due to what is filtered down to us? I had never heard the story of 'Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners' and the way in which the bravery and compassion of one small group changed the face of trade unions and the Labour party.  It is a phenomenal story of hope and belief.  But who decides what makes a story? Why are some voices louder than others?

In the beautiful grounds of Northern College stands a memorial to Lady Mary Montagu. Mary was a writer, traveller and critic of the treatment of women in the Georgian era.  She was responsible for bringing the Ottoman practice of variolation to England and undoubtably preventing a smallpox epidemic. This happened ten years BEFORE the birth of Edward Jenner, the physician who later pioneered the vaccine and is now known as the 'father of immunology'. (It's unlikely that you will have heard of Mary. She kept her extensive writings under wraps, most probably for fear of public retribution. You can find out more about her here).

In my teaching I encourage students to consider 'absent identities'.  Who isn't in your classroom? Why aren't they there, and how can you bring them into the room?' For them, it could be women, in a motor mechanics lesson. Men in a parenting class about breast-feeding. Students with disabilities, who can't even access the building you teach in. Black writers, in a literature class.

This blog is my attempt to discover and share the influence of another often absent identity - women writers on education.  Every month my reflections on my teaching practice will be based around the writing of a 'lost woman'.  Please share your ideas and suggestions so that I can expand my knowledge further, and get their voices heard.

November will feature John Dewey's contemporary, Helen Parkhurst.