Tony Judt’s German teacher
Over the course of the year, I have befriended a young German teacher called Eva. At the pub after work, she told me how as a bookish teenager she built up a romantic longing to live in the England of Jane Austen, a land of polite wit and good manners. Coming to work in a British state school has been, to put it mildly, a reality shock for Eva.
As an outsider, she is always a good person for sharing a staff room rant about the insanity of British schooling. She hilariously recalled to me her bemusement whilst doing a teacher training degree at a British university. No language learning should be done through drill or rote, she was told, but all through communication and interaction. ‘I was not told how to teach them’, she told me, ‘I was told how to play games’.
Eva had been exposed to the child-centred orthodoxy of ‘communicative’ language teaching. This principle states that children learn languages best when encouraged to communicate from the start, and thus pick up vocabulary, grammar and sentence structure through a natural process of osmosis. Rote learning and memorisation are thus eliminated. At a classroom level, this descends into playing games with the pupils, and if they are lucky, they may remember the odd word. I asked Eva if this is how she picked up her perfect English in the German school system. ‘No’, she replied, ‘we were actually taught’.
Sadly, Eva’s teaching is rated on the extent to which she fulfils child-centred methods, so against her better judgement she has given into its lunacy. I teach in the classroom next door to her, and hearing the ensuing chaos of her classes, I often reflect on a quite different German teacher as described by the late historian Tony Judt.
One of the greatest European historians of our generation, Tony Judt died in the summer of 2010 of a degenerative disease. His later writing is in many ways a mea culpa by a former member of the radical left. Child-centred education is just one of its tenets he renounces in his book The Memory Chalet. He writes of ‘Joe’, a six foot war-scarred Scot who taught him German at a direct-grant school in London during the 1960s. ‘There was nothing mysterious about Joe’s teaching methods. We learned by spending hours every day on grammar, vocabulary, and style, in the classroom and at home. There were daily tests of memory, reasoning, and comprehension. Mistakes were ruthlessly punished: to get less than eighteen out of twenty on a vocabulary test was to be “Gormless!”
Despite being ‘terrifying’, Joe was according to Judt ‘the best teacher I ever had’, and helped propel him, the son of lower middle-class Jewish immigrants, to Cambridge and on to a career as an esteemed public intellectual on both sides of the Atlantic. As Judt rightly recognises, for similarly bright pupils in today’s state sector, such teachers are largely extinct. Teachers today are too versed in the methods of ‘child-centred’ teaching to actually push their pupils towards academic success.
In order to succeed in life, children need to develop rigour, self-discipline and a positive work ethic, but these things sound brutally oppressive to many modern ears. I dread to think how many great minds of tomorrow are being ruined by today’s state schooling, as child-centred educators kill their potential with kindness.