My book, Seven Myths about Education, is published today.
It’s available as an ebook from the Amazon Kindle store – click here to buy it.
There’s a nice review of it here by Joe Kirby.
In the last few days I have given a short summary of each chapter. Here they are.
- Facts prevent understanding
- Teacher-led instruction is passive
- The 21st century fundamentally changes everything
- You can always just look it up
- We should teach transferable skills
- Projects and activities are the best way to learn
- Teaching knowledge is indoctrination
In this chapter I look at some of the political arguments against teaching knowledge – the idea that it is impossible to make a politically ‘neutral’ selection of knowledge to teach to pupils, and that we should therefore not teach knowledge at all. The purpose of education should be less about pupils receiving knowledge and more about pupils sifting opinions and working with their own experiences. Here I look at the work of some influential curriculum theorists who all started writing in the 1970s: Michael Young, Michael Apple, Vic Kelly and John White. I then look at examples of lessons which clearly reflect this concern for the child’s own experiences and show a wariness about ‘external’ knowledge and its brainwashing potential. The problem with this argument is that it relies on there being a dichotomy between ‘bad’ brainwashing knowledge and ‘good’ empowering skills. In actual fact, as I hope I’ve shown, no such dichotomy exists. We can’t teach pupils to sift opinions and weigh up evidence unless they have some knowledge to work with. Nor can we expect them to work with their own experiences and then transfer these skills across to new knowledge, because, as we’ve seen, skills do not transfer like this. If we want pupils to be able to deploy their skills on knowledge outside their own experience, we have to teach that knowledge. If our aim is for pupils to be able to read broadsheet newspapers, be active citizens and to play a full part in the lives of their communities, we have to teach the kind of knowledge that makes such activities possible. Education is often defended in economic terms, as a tool for making countries and individuals richer. But it undoubtedly has an important democratic role too, as a tool for making countries fairer. If we don’t teach powerful knowledge in schools, we end up with social inequality, because richer pupils will gain that knowledge from their parents and private tutors, whilst poorer children will not.
The theory here is that in the real world, problems do not come neatly wrapped in boxes labelled ‘Maths’ or ‘English’. Thus, teaching pupils in these ‘subject silos’ is ineffective. Instead, we should teach pupils using projects or activities which more accurately reflect the problems they will face in the real world. Such projects also have the benefit of being more intrinsically motivating for pupils, and will help promote ‘independent learning’, a popular buzzword in modern education. Again, Ofsted, the RSA Opening Minds curriculum, the ATL and a variety of educationalists all make this practical or theoretical case. I argue that it is a confusion of aims and methods. Our aim should be for pupils to be able to tackle real-world problems by the end of their education; that does not mean that our method should involve endless practice of real-world problems. This is because real-world problems often involve a great deal of distracting information which overwhelms working memory. Likewise, our final aim should be for pupils to work independently; this does not mean that constant independent learning will achieve this aim. ‘Independent learning’ often just means discovery learning or unguided learning, which are highly inefficient and ineffective ways to learn new material. There is also a novice/expert issue here – experts are good at solving real world problems, but we shouldn’t ask novices just to mimic what experts do, otherwise we’re into cargo cult territory. Experts think in a qualitatively different way from novices.
In this chapter I look at the work of Guy Claxton, Chris Quigley and the RSA Opening Minds Curriculum. They all promote the idea that there are generic skills which it’s possible to teach in the abstract. By teaching pupils such generic skills they will then have them available to transfer to whatever new content they wish. Of course, if this were true it would be a very efficient way of proceeding, but unfortunately it isn’t. Skills are tied to domain knowledge. If you can analyse a poem, it doesn’t mean you can analyse a quadratic equation, even though we apply the word ‘analysis’ to each activity. Likewise with evaluation, synthesis, explanation and all the other words to be found at the top of Bloom’s Taxonomy. When we see people employing what we think of as transferable skills, what we’re probably seeing is someone with a wide-ranging body of knowledge in a number of different domains.
There’s a nice E.D. Hirsch article about this here (this is the one where he uses the metaphor of skills and knowledge being like a scrambled egg), and a good Herbert Simon article here where he points out that way we use the word skill often begs the question (as with Moliere’s doctor saying that the sleep-inducing properties of opium are caused by its dormitive power).
This chapter is about the very popular idea that the invention of Google means we no longer have to remember things. I cite a few examples of professors and teachers who make this case, although I could have cited a lot more: if I had to pick, I would say that this myth is the one I hear most in everyday conversations, sometimes even amongst people who are not involved in education. I then show some lesson examples from Ofsted and the RSA which assume that pupils can depend on the knowledge being ‘out there’. Actually, the limitations of working memory mean that we have to have a store of facts in long-term memory in order to be able to think. Not only that, but in order to use reference tools like Google and Wikipedia effectively, you need a great deal of knowledge to begin with. This chapter builds on a previous blog post of mine you can find here.
Just after I’d finished writing this post, a friend sent me a link to an article by Justin Webb in the Radio Times (H/T @fairgroundtown). Here are some extracts.
- ‘You do not need to know anything any more. Knowing things is hopelessly 20th century. The reason is that everything you need to know – things you may previously have memorised from books – is (or soon will be) instantly available on a handheld device in your pocket.’
- ‘Why waste your time learning facts when they are on your phone, all the time, in your pocket? And soon on a tattoo on your arm, or on your shirt, or a pair of glasses.’
- ‘What fascinates me about the new world is that along with there being no need to know things comes a massive need to be able to manipulate information when you find it…the key to entering this lucrative professional class will be knowing what do with knowledge, not knowing the knowledge itself.’
These are all perfect examples of this myth, and a perfect example of how this myth has gone mainstream, promoted by journalists in the popular press, not just by educationalists in unread tomes.
In this chapter, I look at some more modern theories about the unimportance of facts. I consider what some current education professors and education unions have to say, and look at two phenomenally popular YouTube videos – Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk and Shift Happens. Their argument is that the speed of modern technological change means the education world needs to change equally quickly. I look at some lessons and curricula which have been influenced by these ideas, including the RSA’s Opening Minds curriculum and some more examples of good and outstanding Ofsted lessons. I show that in practice the kinds of changes these ideas lead to are not modern at all, but are remarkably similar to Rousseau’s prescriptions in the 18th century. I also show that these theories consistently exaggerate the extent to which our knowledge of the world is changing. In fact, fundamental bodies of knowledge and basic inventions are just as important as they ever were and are highly unlikely to change significantly in the future. I argue that the newer an idea is, the more likely it is to become obsolete; whereas those old ideas which are still useful to us are likely to go on still being useful in the future. This chapter builds on an earlier blog post of mine you can find here.
In this chapter, I look at how Rousseau, Dewey and Freire’s opposition to facts works in practice. I show how their pedagogical approach rejects teacher-led learning, and instead encourages pupils to discover knowledge for themselves. Teacher-led instruction is stereotyped as passive and boring. I then look at some of the descriptions of good practice from modern English classrooms, which all tend to assume that independent enquiry and discovery are good and teacher explanation and direction are bad. I then show why this isn’t the case and why teacher-directed learning can in fact be an extraordinarily active process for the pupil. I also look briefly at the remarkable story of Siegfried Englemann and Direct Instruction.