Teacher Education, Albert Wolters and the ‘Criticism Lesson’

It comes as no surprise that Education students experience feelings of apprehension when starting their School Experience (formerly known as Teaching Practice). But at least they no longer have to undergo a form of torture known as ‘the Criticism Lesson‘.

I first learnt of this phenomenon from a short memoir written by Albert Wolters in 1949, part of a volume marking 50 years of Teacher Education at Reading.

Albert Wolters (1883-1961)

The name of Albert Wolters is widely known across Reading University thanks to the Albert Wolters Distinguished Visiting Professorships. These prestigious awards have been held by the following scholars of international acclaim: Ellen Bialystok (2015), Steven Pinker (2016), Noam Chomsky (2017), Elizabeth Loftus (2018), Daniel Dennett (2019) and Alison Gopnik (2021).

Wolters’ many talents and achievements have recently been extolled by Ingeborg Lasser in The Psychologist. He was a pioneer in the field of Psychology and responsible for enabling Psychology to become an independent department in 1921. He was its first head, was made Professor in 1943 and became Reading’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor in 1947.

Before the establishment of the Psychology Department, Wolters had contributed to the training of teachers following his appointment to University College Reading in 1908. He is listed among the staff of both Education and Philosophy where Psychology was located during this period. His involvement with teachers continued beyond 1921 and he is recorded by Charles Rawson, a PhD candidate, as contributing to the in-service training of teachers evacuated to Reading from London during World War II.

What is less well known is that in 1902 Wolters became a student at Reading’s Day Training College, preparing to be an Elementary School teacher. It is from this time that he recalls the ordeal described below.

The Criticism Lesson

In Wolters’ own words:

One feature of the course was pretty generally disliked. Once a week some twenty children were drafted into the College Hall for a “criticism lesson”. … Then one of us had to stand up and “give a lesson” to that class, while forty students looked on knowing that they had to comment on it afterwards, perhaps to be told that criticism need not be abuse. The children enjoyed it; they were out of school. We sometimes suspected that the Master of Method [J. H. Gettins] enjoyed it in a sadistic moment otherwise quite foreign to his character.’ (p. 19)

According to S. J. Curtis who was an Education student from 1911-14, the assembled staff of the Department and the head of the school were also present:

One ordeal dreaded by every student in the Department was the criticism lesson given before an audience consisting of the staff of the Department, the head-teacher, and, what was worst of all, before one’s fellow students. As one who passed through the fire, I can say that the actual experience was not nearly as terrifying as it appeared in prospect. This was entirely due to the way in which it was handled by Mr. Cooke [see photograph below]. However weak and faltering the lesson, providing the teacher was really serious about the business, Mr. Cooke would always find at least one praiseworthy item in it…‘ (p. 24)

The hall that Wolters mentions was the main hall of the College in Valpy Street (see previous post for map and photo). The events referred to by Curtis most likely took place in the Great Hall on the London Road Campus.

S. J. Curtis went on to make his mark as Reader in Education at Leeds University where he became a renowned expert on the History of Education and Moral Philosophy.

The Education Department in the time of Albert Wolters

The present Institute of Education at London Road can trace its origins back to 1892 with the training of Pupil Teachers and preparation of Uncertificated Teachers in Elementary Schools for the Certificate Examination (Armstrong, 1949). It was only in 1899, however, when Reading College obtained recognition as a Day Training College, that the real foundations of today’s Institute were laid. Edith Morley recalls that by the time she was appointed in 1901, things were well under way, with 80 full-time students pursuing a two-year course to become Elementary Teachers. In 1902, Albert Wolters enrolled as one of about 40 students in his year group, two-thirds of whom were women.

The photograph below shows the Education Department in the year before Wolters arrived. Many of these lecturers would have been his tutors. Some, like W. M. Childs and  H. S. Cooke,  would later become his friends and colleagues after his appointment to the Department in 1908.

The College Education Department, Valpy Street, 1901
Staff Identified by name in H. C. Barnard’s History of the Department
  1. H. J. Mackinder, College Principal.
  2. W. M. Childes, Vice-Principal; later Reading University’s first Vice-Chancellor.
  3. H. S. Cooke, Headmaster of the Pupil Teachers’ Centre; later Head of Department.
  4. J. M. Rey, Lecturer in French.
  5. Miss Bolam, Education Tutor and Warden of St Andrew’s Hostel.
  6. F. H. Wright, Registrar.
  7. J. H. Sacret, Lecturer in History.
  8. A. W. Seaby, Lecturer in Fine Art; later Professor of Fine Art.
  9. W. G. de Burgh, Lecturer in Classics; later Professor of Classics.
Sources

Armstrong, H. (1949). A brief outline of the growth of the Department. In H. C. Barnard (Ed.), The Education Department through fifty years (pp. 9-17). University of Reading.

Barnard, H. C. (Ed.). (1949). The Education Department through fifty years. University of Reading.

Curtis, S. J. (1949). Early days. In H. C. Barnard (Ed.), The Education Department through fifty years (pp. 23-5). University of Reading.

Morley, E. (2016). Before and after: reminiscences of a working life (original text of 1944 edited by Barbara Morris). Reading: Two Rivers Press.

Rawson, C. P. (1943). Some aspects of evacuation. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Reading.

Wolters, A. W. (1949). Early days. In H. C. Barnard (Ed.), The Education Department through fifty years (pp. 18-20). Reading: University of Reading.

University College Reading. Calendar, 1919-20.

Thanks to:

Dr Gordon Cox for telling me about Professor Barnard’s book and lending me his copy.

Professor Carmel Houston-Price (Head of the School of Psychology & Clinical Language Sciences) for clarification about the Visiting Distinguished Professorships and biographical information about Albert Wolters.

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