Were The Ancient Babylonians ‘Outstanding’?

One of the oldest texts available to us, ‘Schooldays’, is a story impressed upon a clay tablet by one disgruntled pupil who talks about the prevalence of caning.[1] The boy was caned for talking, he was caned for his scruffy cuneiform, and he was caned for drinking too much beer. The phrase ‘he caned me’ is strung repetitiously throughout the poem.[2]

In order to learn, students would read, cover, and rewrite what they had just seen. Presumably the Ancient Mesopotamians didn’t have any kind of Bloom’s ziggurat to allow them to ascend to the higher levels of instruction. Nevertheless, the practice does receive backing from current literature; notably, Retrieval Practice by Kate Jones.

My main issue is the use of the cane. Effective retrieval practice is low-stakes or no-stakes in nature.[3] The prospect of being hit with a stick would likely put a student under undue stress.

In order to delve further, I conducted a student voice. One student stated that he devoted every available hour to ‘recopying and composing tablets’.[4] Is this effective practice? No. So, why is he doing it? I then asked the teacher about modelling. He lowered his brow, looked very suspiciously at me, before taking a clod from a wooden bucket and then kneading it into a lentil shape. All very well and good, but not precisely my meaning.

I also feel that, although discovery learning lacks any evidential basis whatsoever, the instructional methods of the Third Kingdom of Ur require some form of student agency. How can anybody become an Outstanding teacher when all of the pupils are sitting down? Again, maybe this is just me, but when I hear pupils boasting that they can write, apprehend sexagesimal numerals, translate between Sumerian and Akkadian, in addition to conversions of weights and measures… I can’t help asking myself, ‘But what about PSHE?’

Babylon, Nineveh, Uruk – these cities are dangerous. One story I read told of an Urukian king named Gilgamesh. It struck me as indicative of a number of social issues – journeys to the underworld, mountains struck in half with bare hands, as well as winged bulls descending from heaven. PowerPoint presentations or YouTube videos could make for some brilliant ‘quick-win’ safeguarding interventions: I watched a particularly poignant and realistic clip about ten years ago now, showing a boy named Tariq who forces a peer at knifepoint to take a drag on a cigarette. There is no Babylonian analogue of YouTube, but it is clear that the children ought to be kept safe. What’s to stop another winged bull trampling one of the children?

One fascinating aspect of Mesopotamian T&L is what I call ‘the inversion of praise’. It isn’t that the cane is preferred in a stick-versus-carrot kind of way. Oh no. The teacher does believe in incentives. However, these incentives are to accrue to the professional, rather than the child. One child explains how he lavishes food, drinks, garments and bracelets upon his wicker-happy taskmaster. The teacher finishes his wine and then delivers perhaps the most unusual speech I’ve ever witnessed in all my years in Mocksted consultancy: ‘May Nidaba [goddess of scribes] show favour on your reed stylus, may she take all error from your hand copies.’[5]

We’ve come a long way since Red, Amber, Green. And though there’s been a great deal of hot air in the edusphere over the years, for better or worse, the climate has changed. As with our own atmosphere, this has much to do with feedback effects. Now, I’ve read some great authors recently. David Didaddio. Teddy Sheringham. And my favourite has got to be Dylan Willingham. I’ve got a book in front of me currently, and I’m going to copy the cover into this Word document so that I spell it correctly: Daisy Christodoulou, Making Good Progress? I’ve not read much, but it makes no mention of supernatural deities. Furthermore, I’d presume that devotional assertions would come under the rubric of ‘generic feedback’, which would impede progress since pupils are not given specific guidance on where and how to improve.[6] The Babylonian counterpart to AfL – Magi for Learning (MfL) – could just as well be a foreign language, since it neither reveals misconceptions nor offers any opportunities for deliberate practice.

My overall verdict is that the teachers of Ancient Mesopotamia are inadequate. The environment is neither safe nor stimulating, unless you’re entertained by wedge-shaped impressions on clay tablets. There is a disconcerting lack of professionalism, especially where the teachers introduce beer as a learning aid, or are jangling bracelets and wine-quaffing at parents’ houses. In terms of TS4 and TS6, the curriculum is well-sequenced, moving from wedge-shaped impressions to impressions made with multiple wedge shapes, and thence to animals that look like they were drawn by a five-year-old (I’m unsure of the Sumerian name for these symbols). For TS5, differentiation is consistently delivered upon, though it is largely through the petition of urban deities, or ritual sacrifice. The method is not proven to work, though I think it compares favourably with Differentiation by Outcome, since it involves at least the appearance of doing something.[7]


[1] https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/texts-tablets-and-teaching.

[2] Paul Kriwaczek, Babylon (p. 188).

[3] Kate Jones, Retrieval Practice [Kindle Edn.] (loc. 210).

[4] Paul Kriwaczek, Babylon (p. 187).

[5] Paul Kriwaczek, Babylon (p. 189).

[6] Daisy Christodoulou, Making Good Progress? (p. 92).

[7] Professional Standards for Teachers in England, (September) 2007, Available at https://www.rgs.org/CMSPages/GetFile.aspx?nodeguid=8284e377-3980-4d16-8348-a6d4c75a705a&lang=en-GB.

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