Ted Wragg was a popular education guru whose words remain as relevant today as they did a quarter of a centuary ago.
Professor Ted Wragg was the director of the School of Education at Exeter University, my old Alma Mata. 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, through the drawings of children, how they interpret the world around them. He introduced us to the concept of a schemata, an ever-evolving mental framework of how we understand out environment, and why it is central to the learning process.
As we spilled out of the lecture hall enthusing about what we had experienced I noticed one of my new friends was particularly quiet. I asked her why. Just before the lecture, she explained, she had noticed an elderly gentleman in the Quad who appeared lost. Marching up to him she stated that he looked a bit bewildered and asked him if she could help in anyway. ‘No, no’, was his reply, ‘I am fine thank you’. As the lecture began it quickly dawned on her the 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.
This story is really all I remember first-hand about Prof Wragg as we call him, but his influence persisted through our undergraduate years at Exeter and beyond. We didn’t realise it at the first, but it slowly dawned on us that Ted Wragg was a colossus in the education world. Not only did he have his own column in the Times Educational Supplement and was author of over 50 books, but he was also heavily involved in raising standards in schools in the Exeter area. We were proud to call him our Director of Education. Looking back I still have that sense of pride, although only now am I learning the lessons he tried to teach us.
His opening lecture on a child’s schema carefully and brilliantly explained how children themselves interpret 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 a young child seeing trees swaying in the wind while the same wind blows on their face. If you ask that 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 the learner notices 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 spiral cucciculum might slow down as we get older, but it never really stops.
Professor Wragg and others like him taught us to understand that education is not only the ‘filling of the pail’ but also 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. Rather they must seek to upset, challenge and question their students to help them re-evaluate themselves and their world.
“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.”Tweet
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. In his writings he typically transcended politically charged debates, not allowing himself to be positioned in one 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.”
Like some modern-day app my own schemata of teaching and learning has been continually upgraded, updated and reinstalled over the years, but the riches Prof Wragg imparted have remained. As undergraduates he showed us the way to cut through the disabling clutter of educational jargon and ideological agendas. He helped us 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. I am forever grateful.
Edward Wragg is no longer with us but his words still resonate despite the fact, or perhaps because of it, that more than quarter of a century has passed since that Freshers’ Week address. “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.
This beautifully written piece honoring a profoundly important voice in education, both personally and professionally, touched and encouraged me at a time when I needed a little nudge to keep going. Thanks, Tim.
Tim, thank you for sharing this piece. The quote at the end of your article has just again reminded me why what we do matters so much.