I was surprised when the children’s author, Paul May, contacted me about a post I had written on Enid Blyton as an educationalist, for once written and published, these posts are often forgotten! I was also curious about what he thought of the pedagogy that was being promoted during the 1930s especially since he had been a primary school teacher. This particularly interested me as during the time Blyton was editing teachers’ handbooks, schools were being encouraged to embrace the ‘modern methods’ child-centred methods of teaching. Paul has kindly given us some of his time to write about his views on one handbook Blyton edited.
In fact, most of the activities in Two Years in the Infant School are teacher-directed and there is little sense that children might be engaged independently in ‘joyous’, ‘instinctive’ pursuits. But while the publication may not entirely have lived up to its claims, it is user-friendly, and most modern-day Early Years teachers would find the contents and their organisation familiar. The topics mostly had a rural or natural theme, but many, like ‘People Who Work for Us’ or ‘Crossing the Road’ might still be seen in today’s classrooms. So, how useful were these plans? I’ll take Topic No 1, ‘The Home’, as an example.
The topic starts with a ‘Talk’ that is too long for most four- and five-year-olds I know. The first paragraph—‘Who has brothers and sisters? Who has a baby at home?’—contains more than enough to prompt lengthy discussions.
Section II covers ‘Oral Composition and Language Training’. ‘Let the children chatter freely about Mother,’ it begins. There are plenty of ideas for getting the children talking, singing, and learning and acting out rhymes.
Section III concerns ‘Reading Preparation’—‘phonics’, ‘word recognition’ and ‘the sentence method’. The phonics section begins charmingly: ‘These exercises should be preceded by the use of the handkerchief.’ The teaching is thorough, ensuring that the children can both say and hear the sounds, and recognise the letters that represent them. The look-and-say section uses flashcards, pictures, signs and labels around the classroom. For the sentence method, ‘Every week a special sentence or phrase can be written on the board for the children to learn and draw.’ To conclude, the author says that ‘In educated homes children approach reading by all three methods; indeed, an intelligent child cannot be confined to one.’
‘Writing’ was Section IV. This, in the first year at least, was practice in developing fine motor control, tracing, filling in Montessori insets, drawing in sand, on blackboards and on coarse paper, writing their own names and (presumably when they were ready) copying sentences. This is much the way writing was taught in many schools through into the 1990s, and elements are still there today.
In Section V the plans for ‘Number’ are far less detailed than the reading and writing. In Week 1 we find, among other things, the wildly ambitious ‘teach the values of figures 1-5.’
There is a range of activities in Drawing and Handwork. In ‘Drawing to help Writing and Number’ we have ‘Drawing lines of different lengths’, ‘Drawing a pin family,’ ‘Drawing a house’. (What Early Years teacher, planning the week’s work late on Sunday night, hasn’t scribbled down something like this?) There are also ideas for modelling, building, and paper folding or tearing.
The final section is Dramatisation, Musical Activities, Games etc. The children will act out episodes of home life. They will march, walk and skip to appropriate music. In the playground they will play ‘Catching the Duster’. ‘The teacher holds a duster by one corner and runs away. The children run after her and try to get the duster.’
To be fair, the musical games, activities and songs in Two Years in the Infant School are generally good, the drawing, modelling and handwork activities would provide useful starting points for imaginative teachers, and the nature-study topics are also detailed and interesting. But the plans are uneven in quality. There is much whole-class teaching and little differentiation. There is some recognition that some children are ‘quicker’ than others and children are allowed to work at different paces when it comes to ‘individual work’, but this is not individual work in the sense of ‘self-chosen activity’.
And it does all look SO familiar. This is exactly how things were in many infant classrooms when I started teaching in the mid-1970s, and a lot of what’s here can still be seen in classrooms today. Can it really be true that the Hadow report on Infant Schools (1933) made the following statements more than 85 years ago, among many others just as radical?
‘It is on the open-air activities and interests of the children that we would base the training and teaching of the infant school.’ (p 124) ‘During the infant stage the play-way is the best way.’ (p 125) ‘There is little doubt that manual and aesthetic development are better secured when the child is left to make what he likes, how he likes and, within reason, when he likes than by any set lessons.’ (p 130) ‘The child should begin to learn the 3 Rs when he wants to do so, whether he be three or six years of age.’ (p 133)
The recommendations of the 1933 Hadow report look as much like a distant Utopia today as they did then—and I can’t help thinking that the modern equivalent of the infant classroom has as much in common with the classroom of Enid Blyton’s ‘Two Years in the Infant School’ as it does with that of the Hadow Report.
Blyton ed. (1938) Two Years in the Infant School, George Newnes: London
Hadow (1933) Infant and Nursery Schools, Report of the Consultative Committee, London: HMSO
Board of Education (1937) Handbook of Suggestions for Teachers, London: HMSO
See also Nazlin Bhiman’s 2012 post: Enid Blyton, educationist.