How I failed to meet the criteria for Blob membership

John White

We have known for some time that Michael Gove has taken up arms against ‘The Blob’. This is his name for an amorphous group of people opposed to his policies from the educational world, including teacher unions, local authority officials, and academics from university education departments. But only now, thanks to his ally Toby Young’s new Civitas pamphlet, do we have a definitive idea of ‘The Blob’ and what it stands for.

He tells us that “They all believe that skills like ‘problem-solving’ and ‘critical thinking’ are more important than subjectknowledge; that education should be ‘child-centred’ rather than ‘didactic’ or ‘teacher-led’; that ‘group work’ and ‘independent learning’ are superior to ‘direct instruction’; that the way to interest children in a subject is to make it ‘relevant’; that ‘rote-learning’ and ‘regurgitatingfacts’ is bad, along with discipline, hierarchy, routine and anything else that involves treating theteacher as an authority figure” (p2).

He later adds to these criteria of inclusion ‘the belief that children are essentially good’; a view of learning based on ‘as few facts as possible’; and an ‘epistemological relativism’ according to which ‘no one point of view is more valid than another’ (pp. 4-5).

I am one of the two Institute people identified in Young’s pamphlet and in the Telegraph as belonging to ‘The Blob’. Before I read the details of its membership requirements, I was delighted with my new badge of honour. But now, having absorbed them, I see regretfully that I am not in ‘The Blob’ after all.

I do not denigrate subject knowledge. I want students to learn plenty of good science, history and geography. True, I don’t think that constructing the curriculum should begin with taken-for-granted blocks of subjects rather than overall aims, but that’s another story – and one that my colleague Michael Reiss and I have recently told.

I am not opposed to ‘direct instruction’ where appropriate. I accept that some rote learning may be helpful on occasion. I am not in favour of indiscipline, or opposed to all routine. I do not think that children are naturally good, but would argue that they learn to be kind, fair, thoughtful and so on through habituation into these virtues. I have always been opposed to the idea that knowledge is relative. It is true that London is the capital of the UK and daffodils come out in spring. If someone thinks something else, it is false that their point of view is as valid as anyone else’s.

I can give Toby plenty of evidence, if he wants it, to back up the claims I’ve just made about my beliefs: I know he’s a stickler for knowledge. Mind you, he can have his lapses. He says, for instance, that I think that knowing the names of the Kings and Queens of England is a middle class perspective. I don’t know where he got that from.

As I said, I have to conclude from all this that, although in all sorts of ways I’m opposed to Gove’s policies, I’m not a member of ‘The Blob’. More alarmingly, I don’t think I know anyone who is. Perhaps if you are reading this and feel you meet the criteria laid down, you will say so. In this way we could begin to draw up some kind of membership list.

Meanwhile, I’m beginning to wonder whether anyone belongs to ‘The Blob’. Has Toby’s imagination made the whole thing up?

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11 comments on “How I failed to meet the criteria for Blob membership
  1. Andrew says:

    You are totally correct – there is no blob. The caricature of educationists that Gove etc have painted has allowed them to portray the replacement of a gold standard secondary national curriculum that combined skills and knowledge with a list of content they’ve essentially written up in the back of an eneclope according to their prejudices as a positive move. In fact, it is absurd.

  2. Bob Harrison says:

    Great post….I think “the blob” was actually a Dominic Cummings invention? Fortunately he has now left his job as Gove’s special adviser to set up a “Free” school.

  3. The difficulty with arguing against, with, to or from a thoroughly postmodern imaginationist like Blobby Young is that he has gone beyond relativism and way off into assertive nonsensicalism, using just enough syntax to allow a careless listener to suppose that he is talking English and making sense. The current Tory line is that however ill-informed, dishonest or plain bonkers their utterances are, kind journalists and frightened public broadcasters will take the gibberish to be a “position” which needs balancing with one that contradicts it. The problem is that nonsense cannot be debated rationally and even attempts at mockery (mine especially) just end up jumping into he silly corner making animal noises with the other Year 2s.

  4. Farah Ahmed says:

    Is it possible that the only criteria for membership of ‘the blob’ is simply anyone who questions or disagrees with government policies?

    Here is an interesting read on arguably the biggest challenge posed by these policies, i.e. retaining the development of a critical personal autonomy as an aim of education.

  5. chriswq says:

    I agree with Sam and Andrew, as well as with the article, but the people who need to listen are refusing to do so. Like most teachers, I care about the welfare of the children I teach and about the welfare of children in general, not about one particular subject only. I make no apologies for starting my planning with the child at the centre – and looking for effective, relevant ways to enthuse, encourage and educate them, using facts, methods and activities that will make learning attractive for their whole life, not just their school years. Gove is not a friend to children, their parents, our country or our world. He is not interested in what actually works, just in empty words put into his mouth by advisers who see their own pocket-lining as a relevant aim. Let us hope he is replaced by an educationalist who takes on board proper scientific research into learning and then bases policies, funding and support for schools and the children they serve on this. I am not holding my breath.

  6. John Quicke says:

    Why Toby Young is at the very centre of a Blob.

    I’ve never used the term Blob but it may be a word that I’ve been fishing for for years. Up until now I have been using the more high falutin term institutional inertia, which for me characterises the school system with which I have been involved in various professional capacities for over fifty years. I have spent a considerable amount of time in state secondary schools, usually intensely preoccupied with working out ways in which schools could develop an appropriate pedagogy for a ‘curriculum for all’. There have been changes but nothing I would describe as radical. I visited many schools who called themselves ‘progressive’ but where most lessons remained traditional, where ‘collaborative group work’ was supposed to be taking place but where most lessons were actually still ‘chalk and talk’ in some form or another, and where children were supposed to being taught to ‘think critically’ but nothing of that kind was taking place. Maybe sometimes in patches but never throughout the whole school.

    The problem was not that the curriculum was not knowledge-rich (it was ) or that the teacher was not clued up enough in his or her own subject or that no one thought that children should taught ‘facts’ or learn in a disciplined way. All this was in abundance. Most of the curriculum, even before the National Curriculum, was taught in traditional subjects. I have never been in a school which has not given priority to English, Maths and Science, or which has not taught History or Geography, and Modern Languages or the equivalent of these (e.g Humanities). I can remember a few schools which for brief periods managed to pursue promising innovative curricula but these were rarely sustainable and never ‘pushed out’ traditional subjects.

    I never thought this traditional curriculum and these traditional teaching methods were all bad. Indeed, I have always thought, along with progressive educationalists like John Dewey, that traditional-progressive was a false dichotomy – that it is not a question of one or the other; teacher-led teaching of the ‘knowledge-rich’ curriculum is not incompatible with ‘critical thinking’ or ‘collaborative group work’; either can be emphasised depending on the circumstances, and both are essential for the successful realisation of a liberal education. However, it was quite clear to me as an advocate of liberal education that traditional approaches were not delivering what they claimed to be delivering. They were fine at drumming in knowledge and facts but were leaving out the other important aspect of a liberal education i.e. the development of the capacity to think independently and critically, so that by the time they left school, having supposedly studied science, maths, history, geography etc for several years, students had not really critically engaged with these subjects and certainly (the other important liberal idea) had not learned to ‘love’ their subjects. In fact, many of them left school ‘hating’ them.

    Why? You cannot blame progressive methods because, as I’ve said, they were never dominant in most secondary schools. What kept these one-sided, traditional methods as the dominant emphasis was an institutional inertia borne of…what? This is a question which many of us spent a great deal of thought and time addressing. How much of it was just a resource issue? How much to do with the ‘hidden curricula’ of schooling which reinforced and reproduced inequalities? How much to do with vested interests of subject teachers, the Universities, the exam boards? There were many contested interpretations, but one thing was clear – all these social and cultural forces were propping up and being propped up an essentially didactic, formal, attenuated, uncritical form of so-called liberal education which, given the material circumstances of most schools, was all that could realistically be delivered. That always was and indeed still is part of a Blob, and Toby Young with his emphasis on traditional methods is right at the heart of it.

    • Thank you John for a calm and wise account of the experience and perplexity that confronted so many teachers like myself in the post war years. My own experience of schools, curricula and reforms lasted from ROSLA in 1975 through to The Teacher Education Reform of 1992 and a bit beyond. Perhaps the biggest disappointment for me was the failure to establish teaching as a more fully professional activity that encompassed periods of extended research/professional development as a dynamic component of schooling in general.

  7. Andrew Sabisky says:

    I would say that most students on my Psych of Education MSc (at the IOE) are fairly blob-like. The constant jeering & sneering whenever anyone mentions Gove’s name gets exceedingly tiresome. The occasional dubious attempt to stretch the thin findings of developmental psychology to justify a particular teaching method (typically discovery-based) are also very bad and pretty boring.

    The good lectures, of course, are those packed full of solid nitty-gritty facts for us to get our teeth in to.

  8. bt0558 says:

    Great post and excellent comments.

    “As I said, I have to conclude from all this that, although in all sorts of ways I’m opposed to Gove’s policies, I’m not a member of ‘The Blob’. More alarmingly, I don’t think I know anyone who is.”

    I also am not in the bob. I also know of noone who is. These people seem to suffer from the Hough effect. Hough being a senior manager to whom I once reported who used to say, following detailed and illuminating presentations……”dont try to confuse me with the facts I have already made my mind up”.

  9. My only quibble is that you credit Toby Young with an imagination.

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