Teaching knowledge is not indoctrination

Myth 7 of my book is ‘Teaching knowledge is indoctrination’. I found lots of influential educationalists who believed this, but I did also feel that it was not the most pervasive of the myths I identified. Generally, I find the problem is not that people think that teaching Romeo and Juliet is indoctrinating pupils with the cultural products of dead white European men. More, the problem is that Ofsted think that making puppets is an acceptable way of teaching Romeo and Juliet.

Most of the influential people who believe in this myth wrote their first works in the 1970s. Whilst many of them are still around today, I think their work shows signs of being a bit dated. Significantly, one of the most important promoters of this myth, Michael Young, has actually recanted. In 1971 he edited a collection of essays called Knowledge and Control which was one of the seminal works of the ‘teaching knowledge is indoctrination’ school. He’s since published a book called ‘Bringing Knowledge Back In’ which argues for the importance of teaching what he calls ‘powerful knowledge’.

So, even though some traces of this myth persist, I would have said that on the whole, the belief that knowledge is indoctrination was going the way of the mullet, Love thy Neighbour, and other unlamented aspects of the 1970s. Just as I was thinking that, however, up popped this article in the Guardian by the deputy head teacher Tait Coles.

Interestingly, Mr Coles and I seem to have very similar aims for education.

Teachers can’t ignore the contexts, culture, histories and meanings that students bring to their school. Working class students and other minority groups need an education that prepares them with the knowledge of identifying the problems and conflicts in their life and the skills to act on that knowledge so they can improve their current situations.

I agree with all this. Where Mr Coles and I would depart is the best way to achieve these aims. Mr Coles compares two different approaches to curriculum and pedagogy – that of E.D. Hirsch’s and Paulo Freire’s. For him, Paulo Freire’s methods are far superior.

In contrast, ED Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Curriculum is a ‘hegemonic vision produced for and by the white middle class to help maintain the social and economic status quo’ and ‘teaching a “core knowledge” instils a culture of conformity and an insipid, passive absorption of carefully selected knowledge among young people…Schools that adopt this method become nothing more than pipelines producing robotic citizens, perpetuating the vision of a capitalist society and consequently preventing social mobility.’

Mr Coles offers no evidence for this assertion, and it is hard to see any way in which this criticism is justified. I would genuinely like to see the evidence and logic which led him to this conclusion. I don’t want to accuse him of not having read the Core Knowledge curriculum, but it is quite hard to see how anyone could have read it and come up with this conclusion.  The CK curriculum includes speeches by Martin Luther King and Sojourner Truth, units on reformers such as Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and texts such as Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives, a seminal work of photojournalism which exposed the inequalities of late 19th century New York. If you commissioned someone to design a curriculum that ‘deliberately failed to consider the values and beliefs of any other particular race, class or gender’ and they came back to you with the Core Knowledge Curriculum, you’d send them away to start again. Anyone who has read it or seen it in action will know that the CK curriculum is inclusive, global and multicultural. Indeed, its global and multicultural focus has seen it become the target of criticism from the religious right in America.

Another thing you wouldn’t know from reading Mr Coles’s piece is that Hirsch and Freire both have progressive aims. Where they differ is in how they think you should achieve such aims. As Mr Coles acknowledges in his article, ‘critical pedagogy isn’t a prescriptive set of practices – it’s a continuous moral project that enables young people to develop a social awareness of freedom.’ This vagueness can make it hard to work out the practices Freire advocated. As part of my research for my book Seven Myths about Education, I read some of Freire’s works and those of Freirean practitioners and attempted to pin down exactly what he was proposing. I concluded that for Freire, the very act of transmitting knowledge is suspect and regressive. Instead, his critical pedagogy involves teachers working with the knowledge pupils already have and with the knowledge pupils are able to discover independently.  The problem with this is that the knowledge pupils can discover independently is always going to be limited. Discovery learning is a wholly inefficient way of acquiring knowledge. The knowledge pupils already have is always going to be unequal, and unfortunately may also diverge along socio-economic lines. In modern Britain, it is also the case that the type of knowledge pupils will pick up from the environment will very likely come from the mass media, whose primary focus is often entertainment, not truth. As Harry Webb has argued, a pupil whose only knowledge about Winston Churchill is from the mass media would be in no position to critique Churchill’s reputation. Mr Coles himself accepts that education should ‘challenge the accepted social truths purveyed by media.’ However, a Freirean discovery-based critical pedagogy will not achieve this. It will actually just give more power to media distortions. Thus, if we are so worried about indoctrination that we teach pupils no knowledge, one result is that we actually end up outsourcing the transmission of knowledge to the mass media, which is far more likely to result in indoctrination and bias. Another consequence is that we end up entrenching and reinforcing existing class divisions. Interestingly, one of the secretaries to the Plowden Report recognised this. ‘This view of education, naturalistic, heuristic and developmental as it was, was in some unremarked conflict with the Committee’s thinking about education as a redistributive agency.’ In short, discovery learning and social justice are in conflict.

The alternative to this approach is to accept that knowledge transmission does carry with it the risk of indoctrination, but that it is also an inevitable part of teaching, and the foundation of all skill. Given these three things, then teachers and schools should take great care over the selection of that knowledge and should most certainly not leave it up to the chance of a pupil’s background or the whims of a TV producer.  (There are important questions that will remain about how you choose the knowledge, who chooses the knowledge, and what knowledge you end up choosing – but these are questions that have to be answered, not questions that demolish the possibility of teaching knowledge. They are real questions, not rhetorical ones. I discuss some of the answers to them in chapter 7 of my book, and will discuss it at more length in my next blog.)

Broadly speaking, the former approach is taken by Freire, and the latter by Hirsch (and those in the early labour movement); the former approach is not backed by evidence, and the latter is. Thus, whilst Hirsch and Freire both have progressive aims, Freire’s methods simply haven’t been as effective as Hirsch’s. If we compare the empirical and theoretical evidence in favour of a Hirsch style curriculum and a Freire style curriculum, I am afraid there is no contest. The principles of the CK curriculum are based on a solid understanding of cognitive psychology and the specific curriculum has performed excellently in practice in a number of research studies, including the impressive Core Knowledge Language Arts programme which was shown to be particularly beneficial for precisely the types of disadvantaged pupils Mr Coles is worried about. There is no such evidence in favour of Freire’s pedagogy.

So, to sum up, whilst Hirsch and Freire may both be motivated by the right ideas, only Hirsch is motivated by the right methods.

From my perspective, one of the good things about Mr Coles’s article is that whilst it grossly misrepresents Hirsch, it doesn’t ignore him. Five years ago it was hard to find someone in English education who had heard of Hirsch, or Dan Willingham, or any of the evidence in favour of a content rich curriculum. As I say in my book, the real ‘hegemonic vision’ is not in Hirsch’s curriculum, but in the exclusion of Hirsch and others like him from so many teacher training curriculums. For years, the education establishment has not had to argue against people who opposed its world view because it had effectively airbrushed them out of the debate. In the last few years, things have changed. People can no longer ignore the accumulation of evidence against so many of these dominant ideologies. Instead, they misrepresent and attack this evidence. Moving from being ignored to being attacked may not seem like an improvement, but it is. For every person who reads Mr Coles’s articles and nods in agreement, I think there will be one whose interest is piqued enough to want to find out more about this Hirsch chap. The playing field is levelling. ‘Let truth and falsehood grapple; who ever knew truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?’


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