I noted recently that it was the 10th anniversary of the death of Professor Ted Wragg, director of the School of Education at Exeter University, my old Alma Mata. Prof Wragg was a legend in educational circles and I vividly remember his opening lecture during Freshers’ Week at the beautiful St Luke’s campus. Using the lyrics of the Beatles song, ‘Lucy in the sky with diamonds’ he beautifully illustrated how children see and interpret the world around them through the filter of their schemata, their ever evolving mental frameworks of how they understand their environment.
We all came out of the lecture inspired and ready to launch into our careers. As we enthused about what we had learnt I noticed one of my new friends was particularly quiet. I asked her why. She explained that just before the lecture she had seen an elderly gentleman looking a little bit lost in the quad and so she had gone up to him stated that he looked a bit bewildered and asked him if she could help in anyway. ‘No, no’, was the man’s reply, ‘I am fine thank you’. As the lecture begun it quickly dawned on her that the little old man she had attempted to assist was in fact standing in front of her giving the inaugural address and kick-starting our various educational careers.
The above story is really all I remember first-hand about Professor Wragg, but his influence persisted through our four years at Exeter and beyond. We didn’t realise it at the time, but we began slowly to realise as our time in Exeter went by, that Ted Wragg was a legend in educational circles. Not only did he have his own column in the Times Educational Supplement, but he was also heavily involved in raising standards in certain schools in the Exeter area. We were proud to say that he was our director of education. Looking back some 20 or so years later, I still am proud, although I am only now learning the lessons he tried to teach us.
His opening lecture on a child’s schema carefully and brilliantly explained how children themselves explain the world around them. Even if they don’t understand an event they will make up an explanation, or schema about how it works with whatever information they have to hand. The classic example is of the child seeing the trees blowing in the wind and feeling the wind in their face. If you ask a young child where the wind comes from, they will most likely say it is made by the trees moving. Given what they know about the world, and cause and effect, this is the explanation that makes most sense. Children do this in one way or another for everything.
The process of learning happens when their schemata no longer makes sense, when they notice something that doesn’t fit their current neurological scaffolding. If it is pointed out to a child that the wind is blowing even though there are no trees around, then they are forced to reconstruct their schema to make sense of this new information. This happens in more and more complex ways as children, teenagers and adults go through life. This learning stairway might slow down as we get older but it never really stops, unless of course you are one of the few to reach the stage of full enlightenment. A government minister or headmaster perhaps.
Professor Wragg and others like him taught us to understand that education is not the giving of information but rather the process of disruption that causes us to rethink what we believe about the world. When our world view no longer makes sense we are forced to re-consider our positions and viewpoint. A good teacher cannot ignore the schemata of their pupils and simply plough through curriculum delivery instead. Rather they must seek to upset, challenge and question their students to help them re-evaluate themselves and their world. According to the professor there is no higher calling.
I noted from some of his articles that Ted Wragg did not just advocate disrupting the schemata of children only, he was also a sharp and effective critic of government educational policy too. He certainly did more than his fair share of upsetting official schema and the policies that represented. In his writings he typically transcended politically charged debates, not allowing himself to be positioned in one politically correct camp or the other.
In the TES on November 4, 1988 he said, “I reflected on a class of seven-year-olds I had been teaching. Had I been traditional or progressive, or, for that matter, did anyone give a hang? I had told them things, which sounds trad enough, but we had done a fair bit of group work, so perhaps I am progressive. On the other hand, I had told some of the groups what to do, so I must be a traditional progressive, apart from when they are allowed to discuss the task I have set them with fellow pupils, because at these times I am a progressive traditional.”
For all of us as young students, he found a way for us to cut through the disabling clutter of educational jargon and discern through the noise of the latest and loudest buzz words, the still small voice of pedagogical quiet. He enabled us to hold onto, both then and now, the essence of education. For all you teachers out there, particularly if you have been in this game a while, here is some inspiration from the Prof for this New Year, “Remember also that teaching is a social gene. In the second half of your career, as in the first, you will spread knowledge and skills that have taken the human race thousands of years to acquire. There is no higher calling; without you – and others – society would slide back into primitive squalor.” Keep going.