What 21st Century Teachers Can Learn from 19th Century Scientists

A quirky look at how the development of the College of Teaching parallels with the establishment of Science!

The Crowd Funding Campaign to Kick-Start a College of Teaching failed. Here’s the message sent to me and the other 203 confirmed supporters…

‘On behalf of the Founding Trustees of the College of Teaching, we would like to thank you for pledging your support… As the target will not be met, we will not be taking any money from your account and your payment details will be deleted.’

And, that’s fine. This is something new for education so it will keep failing, till it works.

Like how early ‘men of science’ broke away from the stifling Royal Society…

Darwin is arguably the most famous of the group of men entering Science at a frustrating time when the Crown and Government more readily funded art.

The Royal Society – from which these men came – was bloated, political, steeped in regulation and, simply put, too rigid for those who saw the real potential of science for humanity.

An urgent letter sent 1830 from a pioneering scientific journalist (and later inventor of the kaleidoscope) to an up and coming mathematician (about to make his name advancing ‘mechanical computers) contained the following:

‘…I wish you could spare ten minutes to my equation… and would it not be useful to organise and Association for the purpose of protecting and promoting the secular interests of Science? A few influential noblemen and MP’s would give great help in forwarding such an object.’

Not too dissimilar from a certain Association for the purpose of protecting and promoting the professional interests of Teaching, no?

Those needing ‘hero leaders’ have already turned away in disgust at the crowd-funding failure and, that’s fine. Shall we look more closely?

At the Politics in Education Summit Angela McFarlane’s presentation convinced me this is no ego-trip. Her words echoed that first quiet call to champion science within a society that did not value the discipline.

Nearly 200 years after that simple yet impassioned letter, the place of science is so deeply rooted that general willingness to fund and champion science verses the arts has been completely reversed. Well done those visionaries! What can we learn from them?

You will now learn the full story of what it took to feed ‘baby science’ in those early years and how this maps to our landscape of teaching today.

And you may be surprised where resistance and support came from… 

The pivotal letter was followed by a full year of campaigning, recruiting and arguing. Those with position at the Royal Society remained tactfully elusive, but did recognise in correspondence;

‘…the want in this country and in the actual state of science, of a great, central and presiding power to give an impulse and direction to enquiry.’

As the established intellectual powers of the day, they were aware they could not make this happen for science. If it evolves, it must do so of itself. The best they could do, the most support they could reasonably give, was to not stand in the way.

Which bring us into the present day where, it seems, our Government is interested in taking a little more of an active approach to supporting the College of Teaching;

The College of Teaching welcomes the announcement of support and up to £5 million staged seed funding outlined within the Department for Education’s Educational Excellence, Everywhere white paper, presented to parliament by the Secretary of State for Education, Rt Hon Nicky Morgan MP’

Which naturally has many questioning whether this is an independent agency at all? Going back to the 19th Century…

After a full year of restless endeavour the somewhat depleted first meeting of the British Association of the Advancement of Science took place in York, October 1831 and slipped away almost entirely unreported by the press.

The second meeting of the fledgling Association was in Oxford the following year. This time The Times national paper took a little note, whimsically mentioning these enthusiasts and their ‘unexplained display of philosophical toys.

Not until the third full year of work culminating in their annual meeting, this time in Cambridge, did the society begin to make any national impact. For the first time the list of delegates included almost all who would become the rising stars of early Victorian science.

Several delegates even held positions in the Royal Society, finally deeming this new body for science established enough to add their weight. The only notable absence was Charles Darwin, busy at the time exploring South America with HMS Beagle.

Interestingly, the creation of a fresh platform for science opened opportunity to advance another social cause; with no prior presidency against women members it was this society, rather than the Royal Society, that ladies chose to press for attendance, ushering in a new age of women in science.

By its fourth year the question of schematics was high priority; what should someone who works in ‘the real sciences’ be called?

Philosophers was felt to be too broad, savans too French. Heated and earnest debate ensued until some ingenious gentleman proposed that, by analogy with artist, they might form the word ‘scientist’ – a bow to the mother of science.

And so, ten years after that initial letter on ‘protecting and promoting the secular interests of Science‘ the new word ‘scientist’ was recognised by the Oxford English Dictionary. One of the greatest critics of the name, due to its accidental analogy with the word ‘atheist‘, later reflected;

‘Such coinage has always taken place at the great epochs of discovery; like the medals that are struck and the beginning of a new reign.’

Unstoppable now, the association reached into numerous Literary & Philosophical Societies now popping up all over the country.  Its influence shook the core of the nation as growing public knowledge of science (geology and astronomy in particular) led to fewer and fewer continuing to believe the literal six days of creation.

United as a nation, we suffered the anguish and wonder of crossing this, now mundane, intellectual threshold.

Meetings took place annually, as planned, across a wide range of cities apart from London; always avoided as home to the Royal Society. By the 1840 Glasgow meeting over 2000 people enthusiastically attended each year, with over 1000 confirmed supporters of the society via membership fees.

The press? Sneering till the end I’m afraid. The Times thundered disapproval on every one of the infant years to this honest step forward for society;

“The principle of humbug… the principle of spreading the waters of knowledge over a large surface without caring how shallow they may be. The association, we prophesy, will soon see its end.”

Even our beloved Charles Dickens joined the attack with satirical scenes titled “The full report of the first Meeting of the Mudfog Association for the Advancement of Everything” which nicely puts our ‘Claim Your Cabbagejives into perspective.

On this note I’ll conclude the story of science’s initial break away and establishment as a subject worthy of attention and respect. Thank you for joining me on this mini-exploration into history, playfully abstracting and mashing it with the present!

Historical content was drawn heavily on a small section of an incredible Richard Holmes book called ‘The Age of Wonder’ – do please consider finding or buying a copy (and if you do, let me know as I’d love to re-read it with someone for discussions).

Admittedly, my original draft was full of excited parallels with the College of Teaching, however it now seems more relevant to the development of another movement, sympathetic to the College’s aims, but nonetheless distinct…

#LearningFirst began with a tweet from Dame Alison Peacock asking if some of the profession might be up for collaborating on approaches to student assessment. Within months and with streams of support from all corners, a free conference attracting over 50 speakers and 500 delegates took place in Sheffield offering insights and opportunities for peer learning and collaboration on assessment.

Beyond this we have (and I’ve personally been involved in);

#WomenEd a community about lifting educators confidence through supportive connections

#ResearchEd conferences fostering communication between teachers & education researchers

#TEDxNorwichED, the first education themed TEDx in the UK for four years, now opening discussions on the biggest and broadest ideas on this important theme

…and many more, such as my own #PoliticsInEducation community seeking, via a free eCourse, ways to understand and move education policy without becoming politicians.

Choose your communities. Meet your peers. Express your hopes. Admit your fears. Discover strength in relationships and I’m sure, sometime soon, there’ll be a call for a way to formally develop and recognise the long term professional integrity of classroom teachers.

This must be led by teachers and will be supported by informed students, parents and community members who know the importance of education for society.

UPDATE: Alison Peacock, who initiated the #LearningFirst community mentioned above is the first Chartered College of Teaching Chief Executive.

Click to see this news announced and initial reactions across twitter

And here’s a video summarizing where things are now: