learning styles: how does Daniel Willingham see them?

In 2005, Daniel Willingham used his “Ask the cognitive scientist” column in American Educator to answer the question “What does cognitive science tell us about the existence of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners and the best way to teach them?

The question refers to the learning styles model used in many schools which assumes that children learn best using their preferred sensory modality – visual, auditory or kinaesthetic. Fleming’s VARK model, and the more common VAK variant, frame learning styles in terms of preferences for learning in a particular sensory modality. Other learning styles models are framed in terms of individuals having other stable traits in respect of the way they learn. Willingham frames the VAK model in terms of abilities.

He summarises the relevant cognitive science research like this; “children do differ in their abilities with different modalities, but teaching the child in his best modality doesn’t affect his educational achievement” and goes on to discuss what cognitive science has to say about sensory modalities and memory. Willingham’s response is informative about the relevant research, but I think it could be misleading. For two reasons; he doesn’t differentiate between groups and individuals, and doesn’t adequately explain the role of sensory modalities in memory.

groups and individuals

In the previous post I mentioned the challenge to researchers posed by differences at the population, group and individual levels. Willingham’s summary of the research begins at the population level “children do differ in their abilities with different modalities” but then shifts to the individual level “but teaching the child in his best modality doesn’t affect his educational achievement” [my emphasis].

Even if Willingham’s choice of words is merely a matter of style, it inadvertently conflates findings at the group and individual levels. Group averages tell you what you need to know if you’re interested in broad pedagogical approaches or educational policy; in the case of learning styles, there’s no robust evidence warranting their use as a general approach in teaching. It doesn’t follow that individual children don’t have a ‘best’ (or more likely ‘worst’) modality, nor that they can’t benefit from learning in a particular modality. For example, Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) and sign languages are the only way some children can communicate effectively and ‘talking books’ gives others access to literature that would otherwise be out of their reach. On his learning styles FAQ page, Willingham claims this is a matter of ‘ability’ rather than ‘style’; but in some cases ability will have an impact on preference.

memory and modality

Willingham goes on to explain “a few things that cognitive scientists know about modalities”. His first claim is that “memory is usually stored independent of any modality” [Willingham’s emphasis]. “You typically store memories in terms of meaning — not in terms of whether you saw, heard, or physically interacted with the information”.

He supports this assertion with a finding from research into episodic memory – that whilst people are good at remembering the gist of a story, they tend to be hazy when it comes to specific details. His claim appears to be further supported by research into witness testimony. People might accurately remember a car crashing into a lamppost, but misremember the colour of the car; they correctly recall the driver behaving in an aggressive manner, but are wrong about the words she uttered.

Willingham then extends the role of meaning to the facet of memory that deals with facts and knowledge – semantic memory. He says “the vast majority of educational content is stored in terms of meaning and does not rely on visual, auditory, or kinesthetic memory” and “teachers almost always want students to remember what things mean, not what they look like or sound like”. He uses the example ‘a fire requires oxygen to burn’ and says “the initial experience by which you learned this fact may have been visual (watching a flame go out under a glass) or auditory (hearing an explanation), but the resulting representation of that knowledge in your mind is neither visual nor auditory.” Certainly the idea of a fire requiring oxygen to burn might be neither visual nor auditory, but how many students will not visualise flames being extinguished under a glass when they recall this fact?

substitute modalities

Willingham’s second assertion about memory and sensory modalities is that “the different visual, auditory, and meaning-based representations in our minds cannot serve as substitutes for one another”. He cites a set of experiments reported by Dodson and Shimamura (2000). In the experiments a list of words was read to participants by either a man or a woman. Participants then listened to a second list and were asked to judge which of the words had been in the first list. They were also asked whether a man or woman had spoken the word the first time round. People were five times better at remembering who spoke an item if a test word was read by the same voice than if it was read by the alternative voice. But mismatching the voices didn’t make a difference to the number of words that were recognised.

Dodson and Shimamura see the study as demonstrating that memory is highly susceptible to sensory cues. But Willingham’s conclusion is “this experiment indicates that subjects do store auditory information, but it only helps them remember the part of the memory that is auditory — the sound of the voice — and not the word itself, which is stored in terms of its meaning.” This is a rather odd conclusion, given that almost all the words in the experiments were spoken, so auditory memory must have been involved in recognising the words as well as identifying the gender of the speaker. I couldn’t see how the study supported Willingham’s assertion about substitute modalities. And substitute modalities are widely used and used very effectively; writing, sign language and lip-reading are all visual/kinaesthetic substitutes for speech in the auditory modality.

little difference in the classroom

Willingham’s third assertion is “children probably do differ in how good their visual and auditory memories are, but in most situations, it makes little difference in the classroom”. That’s a fair conclusion given the findings of reviews of learning styles studies. He also points out that studies of mental imagery suggest that paying attention to the modality best suited to the content of what’s being taught, rather than the student’s ‘best’ modality, is more likely to help students understand and remember.

the meaning of meaning

Meaning is one of those rather fuzzy words that people use in different ways. It’s widely used to denote the relationship between a symbol and the entity the symbol represents. You could justify talking about memory in terms of meaning in the sense that memory consists of our representations of entities rather than the entities themselves, but I don’t think that’s what Willingham is getting at. I think when he uses the term meaning he’s referring to schemas.

The sequence of a series of events, the gist of a story and the connections between groups of facts are all schemas. There’s no doubt that in the case of complex memories, most people focus on the schema rather than the detail. And teachers do want students to remember the deep structure schemas linking facts rather than just the surface level details. But our memories of chains of events, the plots of stories and factual information are quite clearly not “independent of any modality”. Witnesses who saw a car careering down a road at high speed, collide with a lamppost and the driver emerge swearing at shocked onlookers, might focus on the meaning of that series of events, but they must have some sensory representation of the car and the driver’s voice in order to recall those meaningful events. And how could we recall the narrative of Hansel and Gretel without a sensory representation of two children in a forest, or think about a fire ceasing to burn in the absence of oxygen without a sensory representation of flames and then no flames?

I found it difficult to get a clear picture of Willingham’s conceptual model of memory. When he says “the mind is capable of storing memories in a number of different formats”, and “some memories are stored visually, some auditorily, and some in terms of meaning“, one could easily get the impression that memory is neatly compartmentalised, with ‘meaning’ as one of the compartments. That impression wouldn’t be accurate.

mechanisms of memory

In the brain, sensory information (our only source of information about the outside world) is carried in networks of neurons – brain cells. The pattern of activation in the neural networks forms the representations of real-time sensory input and of what we remember. It’s like the way an almost infinite number of images can be displayed on a computer screen using a limited number of pixels. It’s true that sensory information is initially processed in areas of the brain dedicated to specific sensory modalities. But those streams of information begin to be integrated quite near the beginning of their journey through the brain, and are rapidly brought together to form a bigger picture of what’s happening that can be compared to representations we’ve formed previously – what we call memory.

The underlying biological mechanism appears to be essentially the same for all sensory modalities and for all types of memory – whether they are of stories, sequences of events, facts about fire, or, to cite Willingham’s examples, of Christmas trees, peas, or Clinton’s or Bush’s voice. ‘Meaning’ as far as the brain is concerned, is about associations – which neurons are activating which other neurons and therefore which representations are being activated. Whether we remember the gist of a story, a fact about fire, or what a Christmas tree or frozen pea looks like, we’re activating patterns of neurons that represent information associated with those events, facts or objects.

Real life experiences usually involve incoming information in multiple sensory modalities. We very rarely encounter the world via only one sensory domain and never in terms of ‘meaning’ only – how would we construct that meaning without our senses being involved? Having several sensory channels increases the amount of information we get from the outside world, and increases the likelihood of our accessing memories. A whiff of perfume or a fragment of music can remind us vividly of a particular event or can trigger a chain of factual associations. Teachers are indeed focused on the ‘meaning’ of what they teach, but meaning isn’t divorced from sensory modalities. Indeed, what things look like is vitally important in biology, chemistry and art. And what they sound like is crucial for drama, poetry or modern foreign languages.

In his American Educator piece, Willingham agrees that “children do differ in their abilities with different modalities“.  But by 2008 he was claiming in a video presentation that Learning Styles Don’t Exist. The video made a big impression on teacher Tom Bennett. He says it “explains the problems with the theory so clearly that even dopey old me can get my head around it”.

Tom’s view of learning styles is the subject of the next post.

Dodson, C.S. and Shimamura, A.P. (2000). Differential effects of cue dependency on item and source memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 26, 1023-1044.

Willingham, D (2005). Ask the cognitive scientist: Do visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners need visual, auditory, and kinesthetic instruction? American Educator, Summer.

learning styles: the evidence

The PTA meeting was drawing to a close. The decision to buy more books for the library instead of another interactive whiteboard had been unanimous, and the conversation had turned to educational fads.

“Now, of course,” the headteacher was saying, “it’s all learning styles. We’re visual, auditory or kinaesthetic learners – you know, Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences.” His comment caught my attention because I was familiar with Gardner’s managerial competencies, but couldn’t recall them having anything to do with sensory modalities and I didn’t know they’d made their way into primary education. My curiosity piqued, I read Gardner’s book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. It prompted me to delve into his intriguing earlier account of working with brain-damaged patients – The Shattered Mind.

Where does the VAK model come from?

Gardner’s multiple intelligences model was clearly derived from his pretty solid knowledge of brain function, but wherever the idea of visual, auditory and kinaesthetic (VAK) learning styles had come from, it didn’t look like it came from Gardner. A bit of Googling learning styles kept bringing up the names Dunn and Dunn, but I couldn’t find anything on the VAK model’s origins. So I phoned a friend. “It’s based on Neuro-Linguistic Programming”, she said.

This didn’t bode well. Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) is a therapeutic approach devised in the 1970s by Richard Bandler, a psychology graduate, and John Grinder, then an assistant professor of psychology who, like Frank Smith, had worked in George magical-number-seven-plus-or-minus-two Miller’s lab and been influenced by Noam Chomsky’s ideas about linguistics.

If I’ve understood Bandler and Grinder’s idea correctly, they proposed that insights into people’s internal, subjective sensory representations can be gleaned from their eye movements and the words they use. According to their model, this makes it possible to change those internal representations to reduce anxiety or eliminate phobias. Although there are some valid elements in the theory behind NLP, evaluations of the model have in the main been critical and evidence supporting the effectiveness of NLP as a therapeutic approach has been notable by its absence (see e.g. Witkowski, 2010).

So the VAK Learning Styles model appeared to be an educational intervention derived from a debatable theory and a therapeutic technique that doesn’t work too well.

Evaluating the evidence

Soon after I’d phoned my friend, in 2004 Frank Coffield and colleagues published a systematic and rigorous evaluation of 13 learning styles models used in post-16 learning and found the reliability and validity of many of them wanting. They didn’t evaluate the VAK model as such, but did review the Dunn and Dunn Learning Styles Inventory which is very similar, and it didn’t come out with flying colours. I mentally consigned VAK Learning Styles to my educational fads wastebasket.

Fast forward a decade. Teachers using social media were becoming increasingly dismissive of VAK Learning Styles and of learning styles in general. Their objections appeared to trace back to Tom Bennett’s 2013 book Teacher Proof. Tom doesn’t like learning styles. In Separating neuromyths from science in education, an article on the New Scientist website, he summarises his ‘hitlist’ of neuromyths. He claims the VAK model is “the most popular version” of the learning styles theory, and that it originated in Neil Fleming’s VARK (visual, auditory, read-write, kinaesthetic) concept. According to Fleming, a teacher from New Zealand, his model does indeed derive from Neuro-Linguistic Programming. Bennett says the Coffield review “found up to 71 learning styles had been described, mostly not backed by credible evidence”.

This is where things started to get a bit confusing. The Coffield review identified 71 different learning styles models and evaluated 13 of them against four basic criteria; internal consistency, test-retest reliability, construct validity and predictive validity. The results were mixed, ranging from one model that met all four criteria to two that met none. Five of the 13 use the words ‘learning style(s)’ in their name. They included Dunn and Dunn’s Learning Styles Inventory that features visual, auditory, kinaesthetic and tactile (VAKT) modalities, but not Fleming’s VARK model nor the popular VAK Learning Styles model as such.

Having cited John Hattie’s research on the effect size of educational interventions that found the impact of individualisation to be relatively low, Coffield et al concluded “it seems sensible to concentrate limited resources and staff efforts on those interventions that have the largest effect sizes” (p.134).

A later review of learning styles by Pashler et al (2008) took a different approach. The authors evaluated the evidence for what they call the meshing hypothesis; the claim that individualizing instruction to the learner’s style can enable them to achieve a better learning outcome. They found “plentiful evidence arguing that people differ in the degree to which they have some fairly specific aptitudes for different kinds of thinking and for processing different types of information” (p.105). But like the Coffield team, Pashler et al concluded “at present, there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice. Thus, limited education resources would better be devoted to adopting other educational practices that have a strong evidence base, of which there are an increasing number” (p.105).

Populations, groups and individuals

The research by Coffield, Pashler and Hattie highlights a core challenge for any research relating to large populations; that what is true at the population level might not hold for minority groups or specific individuals – and vice versa. Behavioural studies that compare responses to different treatments usually present results at the group level (see for example Pashler et al’s Fig 1). Results from individuals that differ substantially from the group are usually treated as ‘outliers’ and overlooked. But a couple of high or low scores in a small group can make a substantial difference to the mean. It’s useful to know how the average student behaves if you’re researching teaching methods or developing educational policy, but the challenge for teachers is that they don’t teach the average student – they have to teach students across the range – including the outliers.

So although it makes sense at the population level to focus on Hattie’s top types of intervention, those interventions might not yield the best outcomes for particular classes, groups or individual students. And although the effect sizes of interventions involving the personal attributes of students are relatively low, they are far from non-existent.

In short, reviewers have noted that:
• there is evidence to support the idea that people have particular aptitudes for particular types of learning,
• some learning styles models have some validity and reliability,
• there is little evidence that teaching children in their ‘best’ sensory modality will improve learning outcomes,
• given the limited resources available, the evidence doesn’t warrant teachers investing a lot of time and effort in learning styles assessments.

But you wouldn’t know that from reading some commentaries on learning styles. In the next couple of posts, I want to look at what Daniel Willingham and Tom Bennett have to say about them.

Bandler, R. & Grinder, J (1975). The structure of magic I: A book about language and therapy. Science & Behaviour Books, Palo Alto.

Bandler, R. & Grinder, J (1979). Frogs into Princes: The introduction to Neuro-Linguistic Programming. Eden Grove Editions (1990).

Bennett, T. (2013). Teacher Proof: Why research in education doesn’t always mean what it claims, and what you can do about it, Routledge.

Coffield F., Moseley D., Hall, E. & Ecclestone, K (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review. Learning and Skills Research Council.

Fleming, N. & Mills, C. (1992). Not another invention, rather a catalyst for reflection. To Improve the Academy. Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education. Paper 246.

Gardner, H. (1977). The Shattered Mind: The person after brain damage. Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of Mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. Fontana (1993).

Pashler, H. McDaniel, M. Rohrer, D. and Bjork, R. (2008). Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9, 106-116.

Witkowski, T (2010). Thirty-Five Years of Research on Neuro-Linguistic Programming.
NLP Research Data Base. State of the Art or Pseudoscientific Decoration? Polish Psychological Bulletin 41, 58-66.

The view from the signpost: learning styles

Discovering that some popular teaching approaches (Learning Styles, Brain Gym, Thinking Hats) have less-than-robust support from research has prompted teachers to pay more attention to the evidence for their classroom practice. Teachers don’t have much time to plough through complex research findings. What they want are summaries, signposts to point them in the right direction. But research is a work in progress. Findings are often not clear-cut but contradictory, inconclusive or ambiguous. So it’s not surprising that some signposts – ‘do use synthetic phonics, ‘don’t use Learning Styles’ – often spark heated discussion. The discussions often cover the same ground. In this post, I want look at some recurring issues in debates about synthetic phonics (SP) and Learning Styles (LS).

Take-home messages

Synthetic phonics is an approach to teaching reading that begins by developing children’s awareness of the phonemes within words, links the phonemes with corresponding graphemes, and uses the grapheme-phoneme correspondence to decode the written word. Overall, the reading acquisition research suggests that SP is the most efficient method we’ve found to date of teaching reading. So the take-home message is ‘do use synthetic phonics’.

What most teachers mean by Learning Styles is a specific model developed by Fleming and Mills (1992) derived from the theory behind Neuro-Linguistic Programming. It proposes that students learn better in their preferred sensory modality – visual, aural, read/write or kinaesthetic (VARK). (The modalities are often reduced in practice to VAK – visual, auditory and kinaesthetic.) But ‘learning styles’ is also a generic term for a multitude of instructional models used in education and training. Coffield et al (2004) identified no fewer than 71 of them. Coffield et al’s evaluation didn’t include the VARK or VAK models, but a close relative – Dunn and Dunn’s Learning Styles Questionnaire – didn’t fare too well when tested against Coffield’s reliability and validity criteria (p.139). Other models did better, including Allinson and Hayes Cognitive Styles Index that met all the criteria.

The take-home message for teachers from Coffield and other reviews is that given the variation in validity and reliability between learning styles models, it isn’t worth teachers investing time and effort in using any learning style approach to teaching. So far so good. If the take-home messages are clear, why the heated debate?

Lumping and splitting

‘Lumping’ and ‘splitting’ refer to different ways in which people categorise specific examples; they’re terms used mainly by taxonomists. ‘Lumpers’ tend to use broad categories and ‘splitters’ narrow ones. Synthetic phonics proponents rightly emphasise precision in the way systematic, synthetic phonics (SSP) is used to teach children to read. SSP is a systematic not a scattergun approach, it involves building up words from phonemes not breaking words down to phonemes, and developing phonemic awareness rather than looking at pictures or word shapes. SSP advocates are ‘splitters’ extraordinaire – in respect of SSP practice at least. Learning styles critics, by contrast, tend to lump all learning styles together, often failing to make a distinction between LS models.

SP proponents also become ‘lumpers’ where other approaches to reading acquisition are concerned. Whether it’s whole language, whole words or mixed methods, it makes no difference… it’s not SSP. And both SSP proponents and LS critics are often ‘lumpers’ in respect of the research behind the particular take-home message they’ve embraced so enthusiastically. So what? Why does lumping or splitting matter?

Lumping all non-SSP reading methods together or all learning styles models together matters because the take-home messages from the research are merely signposts pointing busy practitioners in the right direction, not detailed maps of the territory. The signposts tell us very little about the research itself. Peering at the research through the spectacles of the take-home message is likely to produce a distorted view.

The distorted view from the signpost

The research process consists of several stages, including those illustrated in the diagram below.
theory to application
Each stage might include several elements. Some of the elements might eventually emerge as robust (green), others might be turn out to be flawed (red). The point of the research is to find out which is which. At any given time it will probably be unclear whether some components at each stage of the research process are flawed or not. Uncertainty is an integral part of scientific research. The history of science is littered with findings initially dismissed as rubbish that later ushered in a sea-change in thinking, and others that have been greeted as the Next Big Thing that have since been consigned to the trash.

Some of the SP and LS research findings have been contradictory, inconclusive or ambiguous. That’s par for the course. Despite the contradictions, unclear results and ambiguities, there might be general agreement about which way the signposts for practitioners are pointing. That doesn’t mean it’s OK to work backwards from the signpost and make assumptions about the research. In the diagram, there’s enough uncertainty in the research findings to put a question mark over all potential applications. But all that question mark itself tells us is that there’s uncertainty involved. A minor tweak to the theory could explain the contradictory, inconclusive or ambiguous results and then it would be green lights all the way down.

But why does that matter to teachers? It’s the signposts that are important to them, not the finer points of research methodology or statistical analysis. It matters because some of the teachers who are the most committed supporters of SP or critics of LS are also the most vociferous advocates of evidence-based practice.

Evidence: contradictory, inconclusive or ambiguous?

Decades of research into reading acquisition broadly support the use of synthetic phonics for teaching reading, although many of the research findings aren’t unambiguous. One example is the study carried out in Clackmannanshire by Rhona Johnston and Joyce Watson. The overall conclusion is that SP leads to big improvements in reading and spelling, but closer inspection of the results shows they are not entirely clear-cut, and the study’s methodology has been criticised. But you’re unlikely to know that if you rely on SP advocates for an evaluation of the evidence. Personally, I can’t see a problem with saying ‘the research evidence broadly supports the use of synthetic phonics for teaching reading’ and leaving it at that.

The evidence relating to learning styles models is also not watertight, although in this case, it suggests they are mostly not effective. But again, you’re unlikely to find out about the ambiguities from learning styles critics. Tom Bennett, for example, doesn’t like learning styles – as he makes abundantly clear in a TES blog post entitled “Zombie bølløcks: World War VAK isn’t over yet.”

The post is about the VAK Learning Styles model. But in the ‘Voodoo teaching’ chapter of his book Teacher Proof, Bennett concludes about learning styles in general “it is of course, complete rubbish as far as I can see” (p.147). Then he hedges his bets in a footnote; “IN MY OPINION”.

Tom’s an influential figure – government behaviour adviser, driving force behind the ResearchEd conferences and a frequent commentator on educational issues in the press. He’s entitled to lump together all learning styles models if he wants to and to write colourful opinion pieces about them if he gets the chance, but presenting the evidence in terms of his opinion, and missing out evidence that doesn’t support his opinion is misleading. It’s also at odds with an evidence-based approach to practice. Saying there’s mixed evidence for the effectiveness of learning styles models doesn’t take more words than implying there’s none.

So why don’t supporters in the case of SP, or critics in the case of LS, say what the evidence says, rather than what the signposts say? I’d hazard a guess it’s because they’re worried that teachers will see contradictory, inconclusive or ambiguous evidence as providing a loophole that gives them licence to carry on with their pet pedagogies regardless. But the risk of looking at the signpost rather than the evidence is that one set of dominant opinions will be replaced by another.

In the next few posts, I’ll be looking more closely at the learning styles evidence and what some prominent critics have to say about it.


David Didau responded to my thoughts about signposts and learning styles on his blog. Our discussion in the comments section revealed that he and I use the term ‘evidence’ to mean different things. Using words in different ways. Could explain everything.

Coffield F., Moseley D., Hall, E. & Ecclestone, K. (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review. Learning and Skills Research Council.

Fleming, N. & Mills, C. (1992). Not another invention, rather a catalyst for reflection. To Improve the Academy. Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education. Paper 246.

Is systematic synthetic phonics generating neuromyths?

A recent Twitter discussion about systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) was sparked by a note to parents of children in a reception class, advising them what to do if their children got stuck on a word when reading. The first suggestion was “encourage them to sound out unfamiliar words in units of sound (e.g. ch/sh/ai/ea) and to try to blend them”. If that failed “can they use the pictures for any clues?” Two other strategies followed. The ensuing discussion began by questioning the wisdom of using pictures for clues and then went off at many tangents – not uncommon in conversations about SSP.
richard adams reading clues

SSP proponents are, rightly, keen on evidence. The body of evidence supporting SSP is convincing but it’s not the easiest to locate; much of the research predates the internet by decades or is behind a paywall. References are often to books, magazine articles or anecdote; not to be discounted, but not what usually passes for research. As a consequence it’s quite a challenge to build up an overview of the evidence for SSP that’s free of speculation, misunderstandings and theory that’s been superseded. The tangents that came up in this particular discussion are, I suggest, the result of assuming that if something is true for SSP in particular it must also be true for reading, perception, development or biology in general. Here are some of the inferences that came up in the discussion.

You can’t guess a word from a picture
Children’s books are renowned for their illustrations. Good illustrations can support or extend the information in the text, showing readers what a chalet, a mountain stream or a pine tree looks like, for example. Author and artist usually have detailed discussions about illustrations to ensure that the book forms an integrated whole and is not just a text with embellishments.

If the child is learning to read, pictures can serve to focus attention (which could be wandering anywhere) on the content of the text and can have a weak priming effect, increasing the likelihood of the child accessing relevant words. If the picture shows someone climbing a mountain path in the snow, the text is unlikely to contain words about sun, sand and ice-creams.

I understand why SSP proponents object to the child being instructed to guess a particular word by looking at a picture; the guess is likely to be wrong and the child distracted from decoding the word. But some teachers don’t seem to be keen on illustrations per se. As one teacher put it “often superficial time consuming detract from learning”.

Cues are clues are guesswork
The note to parents referred to ‘clues’ in the pictures. One contributor cited a blogpost that claimed “with ‘mixed methods’ eyes jump around looking for cues to guess from”. Clues and cues are often used interchangeably in discussions about phonics on social media. That’s understandable; the words have similar meanings and a slip on the keyboard can transform one into the other. But in a discussion about reading methods, the distinction between guessing, clues and cues is an important one.

Guessing involves drawing conclusions in the absence of enough information to give you a good chance of being right; it’s haphazard, speculative. A clue is a piece of information that points you in a particular direction. A cue has a more specific meaning depending on context; e.g. theatrical cues, social cues, sensory cues. In reading research, a cue is a piece of information about something the observer is interested in or a property of a thing to be attended to. It could be the beginning sound or end letter of a word, or an image representing the word. Cues are directly related to the matter in hand, clues are more indirectly related, guessing is a stab in the dark.

The distinction is important because if teachers are using the terms cue and clue interchangeably and assuming they both involve guessing there’s a risk they’ll mistakenly dismiss references to cues in reading research as guessing or clues, which they are not.

Reading isn’t natural
Another distinction that came up in the discussion was the idea of natural vs. non-natural behaviours. One argument for children needing to be actively taught to read rather than picking it up as they go along is that reading, unlike walking and talking, isn’t a ‘natural’ skill. The argument goes that reading is a relatively recent technological development so we couldn’t possibly have evolved mechanisms for reading in the same way as we have evolved mechanisms for walking and talking. One proponent of this idea is Diane McGuinness, an influential figure in the world of synthetic phonics.

The argument rests on three assumptions. The first is that we have evolved specific mechanisms for walking and talking but not for reading. The ideas that evolution has an aim or purpose and that if everybody does something we must have evolved a dedicated mechanism to do it, are strongly contested by those who argue instead that we can do what our anatomy and physiology enable us to do (see arguments over Chomsky’s linguistic theory). But you wouldn’t know about that long-standing controversy from reading McGuinness’s books or comments from SSP proponents.

The second assumption is that children learn to walk and talk without much effort or input from others. One teacher called the natural/non-natural distinction “pretty damn obvious”. But sometimes the pretty damn obvious isn’t quite so obvious when you look at what’s actually going on. By the time they start school, the average child will have rehearsed walking and talking for thousands of hours. And most toddlers experience a considerable input from others when developing their walking and talking skills even if they don’t have what one contributor referred to as a “WEIRDo Western mother”. Children who’ve experienced extreme neglect (such as those raised in the notorious Romanian orphanages) tend to show significant developmental delays.

The third assumption is that learning to use technological developments requires direct instruction. Whether it does or not depends on the complexity of the task. Pointy sticks and heavy stones are technologies used in foraging and hunting, but most small children can figure out for themselves how to use them – as do chimps and crows. Is the use of sticks and stones by crows, chimps or hunter-gatherers natural or non-natural? A bicycle is a man-made technology more complex than sticks and stones, but most people are able to figure out how to ride a bike simply by watching others do it, even if a bit of practice is needed before they can do it themselves. Is learning to ride a bike with a bit of support from your mum or dad natural or non-natural?

Reading English is a more complex task than riding a bike because of the number of letter-sound correspondences. You’d need a fair amount of watching and listening to written language being read aloud to be able to read for yourself. And you’d need considerable instruction and practice before being able to fly a fighter jet because the technology is massively more complex than that involved in bicycles and alphabetic scripts.

One teacher asked “are you really going to go for the continuum fallacy here?” No idea why he considers a continuum a fallacy. In the natural/non-natural distinction used by SSP proponents there are three continua involved;

• the complexity of the task
• the length of rehearsal time required to master the task, and
• the extent of input from others that’s required.

Some children learn to read simply by being read to, reading for themselves and asking for help with words they don’t recognise. But because reading is a complex task, for most children learning to read by immersion like that would take thousands of hours of rehearsal. It makes far more sense to cut to the chase and use explicit instruction. In principle, learning to fly a fighter jet would be possible through trial-and-error, but it would be a stupidly costly approach to training pilots.

Technology is non-biological
I was told by several teachers that reading, riding a bike and flying an aircraft weren’t biological functions. I fail to see how they can’t be, since all involve human beings using their brain and body. It then occurred to me that the teachers are equating ‘biological’ with ‘natural’ or with the human body alone. In other words, if you acquire a skill that involves only body parts (e.g. walking or talking) it’s biological. If it involves anything other than a body part it’s not biological. Not sure where that leaves hunting with wooden spears, making baskets or weaving woolen fabric using a wooden loom and shuttle.

Teaching and learning are interchangeable
Another tangent was whether or not learning is involved in sleeping, eating and drinking. I contended that it is; newborns do not sleep, eat or drink in the same way as most of them will be sleeping, eating or drinking nine months later. One teacher kept telling me they don’t need to be taught to do those things. I can see why teachers often conflate teaching and learning, but they are not two sides of the same coin. You can teach children things but they might fail to learn them. And children can learn things that nobody has taught them. It’s debatable whether or not parents shaping a baby’s sleeping routine, spoon feeding them or giving them a sippy cup instead of a bottle count as teaching, but it’s pretty clear there’s a lot of learning going on.

What’s true for most is true for all
I was also told by one teacher that all babies crawl (an assertion he later modified) and by a school governor that they can all suckle (an assertion that wasn’t modified). Sweeping generalisations like this coming from people working in education is worrying. Children vary. They vary a lot. Even if only 0.1% of children do or don’t do something, that would involve 8 000 children in English schools. Some and most are not all or none and teachers of all people should be aware of that.

A core factor in children learning to read is the complexity of the task. If the task is a complex one, like reading, most children are likely to learn more quickly and effectively if you teach them explicitly. You can’t infer from that that all children are the same, they all learn in the same way or that teaching and learning are two sides of the same coin. Nor can you infer from a tenuous argument used to justify the use of SSP that distinctions between natural and non-natural or biological and technological are clear, obvious, valid or helpful. The evidence that supports SSP is the evidence that supports SSP. It doesn’t provide a general theory for language, education or human development.

distracted by bees: Tom Bennett reviewing Ken Robinson

Like millions of others, I’m familiar with Sir Ken Robinson’s plea for more creativity in education. Sir Ken has come in for a bit of flak recently from those calling for a return to more traditional teaching methods. Tom Bennett’s TES review of Creative Schools: Revolutionizing Education from the Ground Up, upped the ante. I didn’t recognise the figure he describes as ‘Herod’s favourite educationalist’ as the guy who thinks schools should be more creative. So I read the book. Some of Tom’s criticisms are justified. Others aren’t. In his review, brickbats get hurled in many directions, often at the wrong targets. I think the review requires a response.

Sir Ken’s argument is that state schools were originally designed along the same lines as 19th century factories and the design hasn’t changed much since then. The factory model isn’t effective for education because industrial products are standardised but students aren’t. The factory model stifles the creative thinking we’re going to need on an increasingly crowded planet. As a solution, Sir Ken gives examples of schools that have radically changed their structure or function to foster creativity.

Tom will have none of this. For him, schools are stuffed full of creative activities so Sir Ken’s diagnosis is wrong. The proposed remedy is simply ‘the usual blend of personalised learning, project work, thematic curriculums, knowledge-light/skill-heavy lessons that we’ve come to love from the 21st-century education movement’, worthy only of contempt. His criticism of Sir Ken’s solutions is partly justified. As for the rest, I think he’s missed the point. I think he’s missed several points.

Victorian factories

Sir Ken claims that state education systems were based on the same model as Victorian factories; he’s right, they were. Hierarchical, bureaucratic, mechanistic systems regulated by performance measures were at the time considered to be the epitome of efficiency. That assumption has since been found wanting. To be effective, organisational form has to follow function, and standardised systems are not good at coping with functions that need a lot of flexibility, such as teaching children. Sir Ken isn’t saying that creativity doesn’t exist in schools, but that a standardised system militates against it. It’s quite possible to be creative within a standardised framework. Good luck if the standardised framework itself turns out to be horribly wrong.

Sir Ken’s analysis of the problem is grounded in organisational theory. So is his emphasis on the importance of creativity. The same can’t be said for how he deals with creativity itself.


There’s no doubt that creative thinking has enabled human beings to adapt to a wide range of environments, solve problems and develop sophisticated technologies. Creativity should be fostered in schools. But despite his awareness of its importance, Sir Ken doesn’t go into detail about what creativity is or how it solves problems, what it looks like in different disciplines or how it can be learned.

In Creative Schools, Sir Ken slips, imperceptibly and perhaps without realising it, from a fairly coherent analysis of the problem based on organisation theory to the scattergun ‘success story’ solutions so popular in management theory.

There’s a significant difference between organisation theory and management theory even though they overlap. Organisation theory looks at the big picture from a systems perspective. Management is only one facet of organisations. For many managers, success is whatever works – even if it works only briefly or only in some contexts. For organisations, success needs to take into account the whole organisation and its environment and to be sustained. So knowing that performing Shakespeare plays transformed one school and cultivating students’ interests turned round another might be useful, but you can’t just chuck those ‘solutions’ at schools and hope they stick. Sustained success is likely only with the right structure, the right educational programme and the right teachers for a particular situation.

Management books are replete with abstract concepts that aren’t operationalized and there are plenty of those in Sir Ken’s later chapters; creativity, vision, skills, incentives, leadership and climate. My guess is that management theory is partly responsible for Tom’s despised ‘21st-century education movement’, since they both focus on context-free abstract concepts.

The ‘21st-century education movement’ and Ken Robinson appear to have fallen into the trap of assuming that specific pedagogical approaches that have worked in one context will work in all contexts and that teachers can and should pick’n’mix them regardless. Tom appears to have fallen into a mirror-image of the same trap; of rejecting said pedagogical approaches because they don’t work in all contexts.

Having dismissed what he thinks is Sir Ken’s diagnosis and his remedy, Tom has a go at what he thinks is Sir Ken’s model of education.

not just pointless, but harmful

Sir Ken makes a living mocking the ‘lie’ that if you get a degree you’ll get a good job, but that’s a straw man. No one seriously claims a degree guarantees that.”

Actually, they do – or they come close. One justification for increasing graduate numbers in the UK was that as a ‘knowledge economy’ we needed more graduates – presumably for graduate level jobs. Another was that graduates earned more. Libby Purves on ‘The Learning Curve’ once tried to explain to Les Ebdon, now director of Offa, how increasing the supply of graduates might mean that graduate pay decreased. She failed to persuade him. But her prediction was correct.

What people actually claim is that possession of an academic education is valuable in itself in order to be an informed member of the human race; plus it offers some advantage over those who don’t. Is there anything more sad than the sight of someone denying children the right to an academic curriculum and the fruits thereof, than from someone who is the very pinnacle of such an education?

What does ‘the possession of an academic education’ actually mean? A good education means that you have a good knowledge about how the world works and the skills you need to respond to change. An education isn’t a commodity that you ‘possess’, it’s something you experience. And why specify ‘academic’? If ‘academic’ refers to the education it’s a tautology, and if it means book-learning only it’s questionable. Tom also frames education solely in personal terms; an education makes individuals informed members of the human race and, interestingly, offers them a competitive advantage over others. He doesn’t seem to think of education as a common good. What’s crucially important isn’t the level of education we have as individuals, but as a community. The ‘possession of an academic education’ doesn’t guarantee anything as far as individuals are concerned; one only has to look as far as the track record of some government ministers.

Although he attacks Ken Robinson’s model on the grounds that it will damage children’s prospects, Tom himself doesn’t appear to have a very high expectations of children:

“…while the groovier end of the education spectrum may lend value to a small subset of very able, mature and supported children, for the most part they do not. If you set a child with low literacy an independent study program to boost their grammar skills, some will flourish… But most will give up when it gets hard, or a bee flies in the room. If you only ask children to study those things that they are interested in, would anyone be surprised if they only study things that appeal to them and forego anything difficult or remote?

Well yes, if you suddenly foist a badly designed programme on a kid who’s not prepared for it or don’t give them a clue why things that look difficult and remote might turn out to be useful and interesting. But that’s explicitly not what Sir Ken advocates. Some of his success stories, even if cherry-picked, are about schools that have adopted long-term strategies to re-engage previously disaffected students. There’s no indication that the turnaround applied only to very able, mature and supported children. Tom then goes on to say;

It’s not a stretch to believe that children are naturally curious, they kind of are – what they aren’t is naturally self-disciplined. Curiosity isn’t a good in itself; it is only a good when directed in a structured way that eschews novelty and distraction….You could have visited a Montessori school a hundred years ago and felt perfectly at home with the homilies preached therein, and here.

They ‘kind of are’ curious? Seriously? Tom obviously hasn’t experienced a class of 5 year-olds close up. And curiosity ‘is only a good when directed in a structured way that eschews novelty and distraction’? The whole point about curiosity is that it’s a response to novelty and distraction. It’s what prompts us to acquire new knowledge and skills. It’s there, young children have it in spades, so teachers might as well cash in on it.

As for Tom’s sideswipe at Montessori schools… The Montessori approach dominated primary education in the UK for the best part of a century. It’s still widely used, very effectively, in early years and special education settings. Maria Montessori trained in physics, mathematics, medicine, philosophy and anthropology. She based her educational approach on work done by French physicians Itard and Seguin with children with hearing impairments and learning difficulties. She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. To dismiss her approach as preaching homilies is… well, for once words fail me.

a dismal model of education

Tom’s review of Creative Schools is entertaining and colourful. He makes his points very clearly. Some of them are accurate. But I get the impression his model for education is based on a reaction to the status quo, rather than a rigorous analysis of educational models. He ignores the fact that a standardised, performance-based model of education had been largely abandoned in England by the end of WW1 – because it hadn’t worked. He overlooks the fact that organisational theorists have figured out why. He mistakes Ken Robinson’s reference to similarities in the deep structure of schools and factories for a reference to their surface features.

What Tom probably has seen fail miserably is a bunch of badly thought-through, poorly implemented (21st-century education movement) attempts to develop children’s learning. He appears to see the movement as monolithic and assumes anything that remotely resembles it must be part of it. That includes underlying assumptions about schools being designed like factories or children’s curiosity being powerful enough to make them want to learn anything and everything. If the 21st-century education model is the wrong one, the right one must be the opposite.

I agree that the 21st-century education model is pretty dismal, but I find Tom’s model equally so. It assumes most children aren’t motivated to learn anything hard, nor are they able to ignore distractions. That they’re not interested in things they perceive as difficult or remote. That they are ‘kind of’ curious, but their curiosity is worth nothing unless it oxymoronically eschews novelty and distraction and is constrained in a straitjacket of self-discipline and structure.

I think Tom overlooks the fact that many of the children he’s taught will already have had their curiosity and interest in learning squashed out of them by a standardised, performance-based system that has tried to educate children using a context-free skills approach. If neither of those models works, it’s not surprising kids get distracted by bees. I suggest Tom spends a bit of time with a class of pre-schoolers. He might see things differently.

how to run a government – or not

A decade ago, the then government heard the cries of overworked teachers and implemented an initiative intended to reduce their workload. Statutory planning, preparation and assessment (PPA) time was introduced; teachers were to be freed up from at least 10% of their contact time with students. My children’s primary school sent a letter home about it. Cover was to be provided by teaching assistants.

Since time immemorial, teachers’ working days have been relatively short- if somewhat intense – and they’ve had long vacations (not ‘holidays’, note), giving them ample time for PPA. So why the sudden need to resort to statutory guidance in order to give teachers time to carry out an integral part of their job?

The answer, of course, is that since the Education Reform Act 1988 an entire performance industry had sprouted from the education system, and teachers spent so much time servicing its bureaucratic demands they didn’t have time to do their jobs. But the reasons why PPA time needed safeguarding didn’t appear to have been considered by government.

Baffled, and concerned about both the need for and consequences of this initiative, I wrote to the school, our LA and the Department for Education and Skills (DES). Rather to my surprise, I got replies from each of them, the gist of which was along these lines:

School: *Sigh*. Yes, quite, but we’ll do our best (with yet another initiative that requires yet more reorganisation).

LA: (Phone call from primary HT seconded to LA.) You’ve summed up our concerns exactly. Do we have permission to quote you?

DES: (A month later). We are required to reply to your letter within 20 working days. This constitutes a reply. We’ll respond to the points you made as soon as we can.
(Another month later). We are required to reply to your letter within 20 working days. This constitutes a reply. We’ll respond to your concerns as soon as we can.
(Another month later). We’ve addressed the problem of teachers’ workload. If it doesn’t work, it’s the schools’ and LAs’ fault.

I also wrote to Boots’ Health & Beauty Magazine, which had featured an article about an over-worked teacher. It recommended products she could use to help her sleep, relax, boost her immune system and look less tired. There was no mention of the possibility of reducing her working hours. Their response? Essentially “teachers’ working hours are nothing to do with us”.

Taken at face value, the statutory guidance was successful. Teachers did get additional PPA time. But ten years on it doesn’t appear to have made a significant dent in their workload. That’s because PPA time itself wasn’t the cause of the problem.

How to Run a Government so that Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers Don’t Go Crazy

The impact (positive and negative) of the PPA initiative illustrates the flaw at the heart of Sir Michael Barber’s ‘delivery science’ (formerly known as ‘deliverology’) described in detail in his latest book, How to Run a Government so that Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers Don’t Go Crazy. Barber, a former history teacher, Hackney councillor, NUT official and education policy adviser, was head of Tony Blair’s Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit (PMDU) from 2001-2005. He’s since worked for McKinsey and is currently chief education adviser to educational publishers Pearson.

The Delivery Unit’s job was to ensure that policies were actually implemented. Part of the Prime Ministerial role is to co-ordinate government so having a team dedicated to tracking the progress of particular policies and removing obstacles from their path makes sense. In How to Run a Government, Barber discusses prioritisation, organisation, strategy, planning, routines, problem-solving, ensuring that policies are well-established and that the outcomes are what the electorate wants. He describes the tools and processes the PMDU used to get the job done. On the face of it, his book could be viewed as a practical handbook for anyone who, with little experience, has been tasked with chasing up the progress of particular policies. Or as a project management primer that doesn’t refer directly to the substantial existing literature on the subject. It also offers intriguing insights into how the Blair government functioned.

But scratch the surface and underneath you find something rather different. Barber calls his book How to Run a Government but it’s actually about how to run a Delivery Unit – not quite the same thing. Barber appears to think that the narrow focus required of his Delivery Unit means it’s OK to adopt an equally narrow frame of reference. And for Barber a government and a Delivery Unit amount to the same thing because he attributes inefficiencies and ineffectiveness in modern governments to the failure to implement promised policies. He twice cites Margaret Thatcher’s famous exasperated; “Don’t tell me what. I know what. Tell me how”. For Delivery Units the ‘what’ might be secondary. But for government it’s of primary importance.

what governments do

Traditionally, the focus of central government has been national security; the defence of the realm and the maintenance of law and order. But in recent years governments have gradually taken on what were once local responsibilities – utilities, transport, education, health and welfare. And governments are not just making sure the services are functioning and are properly resourced, they are attempting to manage them. There are good reasons why they shouldn’t. One is that government ministers or civil servants are unlikely to have the necessary specialist domain knowledge. Another is the big risk of services being used for political ends rather than for the benefit of the people. Nonetheless, rightly or wrongly, modern government involves co-ordinating the functions of several complex interconnected systems.

Complex interconnected systems are challenging things. Because they are complex and interconnected, what looks like a minor tweak to one bit can have a massive – sometimes catastrophic – impact on another. For example, removing ‘spare’ hospital beds, increasing GPs’ salaries and reducing social care budgets – all measures that in isolation seem perfectly reasonable – have resulted in the current A&E crisis. It’s imperative that people in government have a good understanding of how systems work. Barber’s book shows that they often don’t. Take for example, the origin of government policies.

where policies come from; a systems perspective

In his book The Open Society and Its Enemies Karl Popper suggests that the focus of a democratic government should be on resolving problems; he illustrates the point by highlighting the disasters that have resulted from attempts to instantiate utopian visions. Suppose for a moment that the next UK government agrees with Popper about its problem-solving role. Suppose also that it has accurately identified the most serious problems besetting the nation.

From a systems perspective, the next task would be to check out the causes of those problems. Causes can be complex, but it’s crucial to pinpoint them accurately in order to get the problems sorted. Sometimes a relatively inexpensive tweak to one system can lead to major improvements in several others – effective sanitation and access to clean water lead to big improvements in health and economic prosperity, for example. The specific policies would consist of whatever action was needed in order to address the causes of the problems. Before implementing the policies, government would need to pilot them to check out their actual impact. This is an essential phase because the complexity of system interactions makes it very difficult to predict the exact outcomes of any given change.

In other words, specific policies would emerge from an analysis of the systems within which the problems are embedded. Policies would be evidence-based and their consequences would be fairly predictable. Pilots would allow unintended or unwanted outcomes to be addressed before implementation.

But that’s not how Sir Michael sees policies. For him, they lie ‘somewhere’ between strategy and implementation (p.101). It doesn’t matter if they originate in ideology (p.62) or in the personal preferences of the PM or President (p.182). Barber recognises that policies can have unintended or unwanted outcomes, but attributes those to choosing the wrong targets (e.g. ones beyond the control of the PM – p.11) or to a failure of a target to ‘tell a good story’ or have sufficient ‘moral purpose’ (p.24). And for Barber, pilots and evidence-based policymaking represent an over-cautious approach (p.7).

One advantage of adopting a narrow frame of reference is that you can just focus on getting the job done. Another advantage is that you can overlook the problems that might emerge as a consequence.

looking past the problems

Barber talks with approval about Calvin Coolidge’s use of routine to implement budget cuts (p.164) but refers only in passing to ‘America’ (never mind anywhere else) being ‘plunged into depression’ even though the 1929 economic crash occurred shortly after Coolidge’s term of office ended and was arguably caused by factors he failed to address. Barber mentions the Iraq war only in passing too, in passages that deal in detail with a 5-hour meeting with Barber about asylum seekers (p.182) and Blair’s political capital leaking away (p.209).

In short, Barber’s narrow focus and narrow frame of reference allow him to get on with the job regardless of the consequences. Impressive results for delivery science; maybe not so impressive for the rest of us.

the emerging science of delivery

Barber claims How to Run a Government is about the ‘emerging science’ of delivery (p.xvii). To be sure he sets out 57(!) rules of ‘delivery science’ throughout the text – also gathered together in a convenient appendix. There’s a nine-page bibliography. And almost 300 pages on what Barber has learned about policy implementation. But that doesn’t make delivery a new ‘emerging science’.

Barber thinks it’s new because there are ‘countless books and manuals’ on various aspects of government, “but on how to get things done in government there is almost nothing. No manuals. Virtually no academic literature.” He goes on to say “Surveying the academic literature on the subject of political science…” (p.xvii). Maybe the clue to the missing manuals lies in where Barber looked for them. Maybe what politicians need to know about policy implementation isn’t filed under ‘political science’ because it’s already well-established in other domains.

Much of Barber’s bibliography is drawn from the literature on management; he doesn’t draw on (highly relevant) project management research; and organisational theory dating back at least to Weber (if not to Thucydides) and systems theory (tried and tested across multiple domains) don’t get a mention. In short, delivery isn’t an emerging science at all. What governments need to know about policy development and implementation is already out there. It just needs to be applied. The fact that recent governments have failed to apply it is worrying.

In his introduction, Barber quotes Charles I, who made a bit of a hash of his period as monarch; “There’s more to the doing than bidding it be done”*. There is indeed, but I’m not convinced Michael Barber has realised quite how much more there is.

Barber, M (2008). Instruction to Deliver: Fighting to Transform Britain’s Public Services. Methuen.
Barber, M (2015). How to Run a Government so that Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers Don’t Go Crazy. Allen Lane.
Popper, K (1945/2003). The Open Society and Its Enemies Vol 1: The Spell of Plato. Routledge.

* The source for this quote is cited as Barber’s Instruction to Deliver (2008). In it, the quote is cited without a source. A Google search appears to attribute it to a 2013 RSA lecture by Stein Ringen, mentioned in How to Run a Government. https://twitter.com/hashtag/RSARingen?src=hash I haven’t watched the Ringen lecture yet, but wouldn’t be surprised if he turns out to cite Barber. Did Charles I actually say it? Maybe we’ll never know.

jumping the literacy hurdle

Someone once said that getting a baby dressed was like trying to put an octopus into a string bag. I was reminded of that during another recent discussion with synthetic phonics (SP) advocates. The debate was triggered by this comment; “Surely, the most fundamental aim of schools is to teach children to read.”

This sentence looks like an essay question for trainee teachers – if they’re still expected to write essays, that is. It encapsulates what has frustrated me so much about the SP ‘position’; all those implicit assumptions.

First there is no ‘surely’ about any aspect of education. You name it, there’s been heated debate about it. Second, it’s not safe to assume schools should have a ‘most fundamental’ aim. Education is a complex business and generally involves quite a few fundamental aims; focussing on one rather than the others is a risky strategy. Third, the sentence assumes a role for literacy that requires some justification.

reading in the real world

Reading is our primary means of recording spoken language. It provides a way of communicating with others across space and time. It extends working memory. It’s important. But in a largely literate society it’s easy to assume that all members of that society are, should be, or need to be equally literate. They’re not. They never have been. And I’ve yet to find any evidence showing that uniform literacy across the population is either achievable or necessary.

I’m not claiming that it doesn’t matter if someone isn’t a competent reader or if 15% of school leavers are functionally illiterate. What I am claiming is that less than 100% functional literacy doesn’t herald the end of civilisation as we know it.

For thousands of years, functionally illiterate people have grown food, baked, brewed, made clothes, pots, pans, furniture, tools, weapons and machines, built houses, palaces, cities, chariots, sailing ships, dams and bridges, navigated halfway around the world, formed exquisite glassware and stunning jewellery, composed songs, poems and plays, devised judicial systems and developed sophisticated religious beliefs.

All those things require knowledge and skill – but not literacy. The quality of human life has undoubtedly been transformed by literacy, and transformed for the better. But literacy is a vehicle for knowledge, a means to an end not an end in itself. It’s important, not for its own sake but because of what it has enabled us – collectively – to achieve. I’m not disparaging reading for enjoyment; but reading for enjoyment didn’t change the world.

What the real world needs is not for everyone to be functionally literate, but for a critical mass of people to be functionally literate. And for some people to be so literate that they can acquire complex skills and knowledge that can benefit the rest of us. What proportion of people need to be functionally or highly literate will depend on what a particular society wants to achieve.

Human beings are a highly social species. Our ecological success (our ability to occupy varied habitats – what we do to those habitats is something else entirely) is due to our ability to solve problems, to communicate those solutions to each other and to work collectively. What an individual can or can’t do is important, but what we can do together is more important because that’s a more efficient way of using resources for mutual benefit.

This survey found that 20% of professionals and 30% of managers don’t have adequate literacy skills. It’s still possible to hold down a skilled job, draw a good salary, drive a car, get a mortgage, raise a family and retire on an adequate pension even if your literacy skills are flaky. Poor literacy might be embarrassing and require some ingenious workarounds to cover it up, but that’s more of a problem with social acceptability than utility. And plenty of jobs don’t require you to be a great reader.

It looks as though inadequate literacy, although an issue in the world of work, isn’t an insurmountable obstacle. So why would anyone claim that teaching children to read is ‘the most fundamental aim of schools’?

reading in schools

There are several reasons. Mass education systems were set up partly to provide manufacturing industry with a literate, numerate workforce. Schools in those fledgling education systems were often run on shoestring budgets. If a school had very limited resources, making reading a priority at least provided children with the opportunity to educate themselves in later life. Literacy takes time to develop, so if you have the luxury of being able to teach additional subjects, it makes sense to access them via reading and writing – thus killing two birds with one stone. Lastly, because for a variety of reasons public examinations are written ones, literacy is a key measure of pupil and school achievement.

In the real world, if you find reading especially difficult you can still learn a lot – by watching and listening or trial and error. But the emphasis schools place on literacy means that if in school you happen to be a child who finds reading especially difficult, you’re stumped. You can’t even compensate by becoming knowledgeable if you’re required to jump the literacy hurdle first. And poor knowledge, however literate you are, is a big problem in the real world.

SP advocates would say that the reason some children find reading difficult is because they haven’t been taught properly. And that if they were taught properly they would be able to read. That’s a possible explanation, but one possible explanation doesn’t rule out all the other possible explanations. And if Jeanne Chall’s descriptions of teachers’ approaches to formal reading instruction programmes are anything to go by, it’s unlikely that all children are going to get taught to read ‘properly’ any time soon. If some children have problems learning to read for whatever reason, we need to make sure that they’re not denied access to knowledge as well. Because in the real world, it’s knowledge that makes things work.

Now for some of the arms of the reading octopus that got tangled up in the string bag that is Twitter.

• I’m not saying reading isn’t important; it is – but that doesn’t make it the ‘fundamental aim of schools’, nor ‘a fundamental skill needed for life’.
• I’m not saying children shouldn’t be taught to read; they should be, but variation in reading ability doesn’t automatically mean a ‘deficit’ in instruction, home life or in the child.
• I’m not saying some children struggle to read because they are ‘less able’ than others; some kids find reading especially challenging but that has nothing to do with their intelligence.
• Nor am saying we shouldn’t have high aspirations for students; we should, but there’s no reason to have the same aspirations for all of them. Our strength as a species is in our diversity.

Frankly, if forced to choose, I’d rather live in a community populated by competent, practical people with reading skills that left something to be desired, than one populated by people with, say, PPE degrees from Oxford who’ve forgotten which way is up.