the best which has been thought/said/known/written – take your pick

I’ve seen Michael Young’s The Rise of Meritocracy cited so many times recently, I thought I should read it.  Published in 1958, it’s written from the perspective of a sociological analysis looking back from 2034. 

Young speculates on the long-term changes resulting from the 1944 Education Act.  The introduction of the 11+ test had made a grammar school education available to many bright children from families who couldn’t previously have afforded it.  Young suggests that in future, the UK will be governed not by those from historically wealthy families, but by those with most intellectual ability – a ‘meritocracy’.

One of the unintended and unwanted outcomes Young forecasts is that low-income families would no longer be able to console themselves with the idea that the rich were often stupid. In the brave new world, the elite would be both wealthy and clever.  So children who weren’t especially academically able would find themselves stuck in low-paid occupations. This would have significant social, economic and legislative implications.  Young is especially critical of comprehensive education.  Was the criticism serious or satirical?  I couldn’t tell.

Suspending disbelief

We’re all familiar with novels about the future.  But they are novels; we know to suspend our disbelief so we can focus on the author’s key themes.  Young’s book isn’t a novel.  A barrister, and one-time director of research for the Labour Party, he wrote The Rise of Meritocracy as a satirical socio-political treatise.  He had difficulty getting it published.  The Fabian Society turned it down, as did eleven other publishers.  Eventually a chance meeting with the founder of Thames & Hudson allowed it to see the light of day.

I found the book perplexing for several reasons:

References The Rise of Meritocracy is written as an academic treatise, and cites references that support its arguments.  The pre-1958 references are probably authentic.  (I tried to track some down but failed, but that’s not surprising, as pre-internet references are often not cited online.  The post-1958 references were originally fictitious, but a revised edition of the book was published in 1994 and its new introduction contains authentic post-1958 references.  I felt the references were neither serious nor satirical, but rather superfluous.

Satire   The book is intended to be satirical, but the satire would be lost on any reader unfamiliar with the detail of policy issues facing the Labour Party or the education system in the 1950s.  

Anachronisms Young couldn’t possibly have predicted the huge economic, social and political upheavals that took place between 1958 and 2034.  But despite expecting his readers to imagine the book was written in 2034, it’s written very much from a 1950s perspective. It’s as if the 1944 Education Act and its consequences were the only significant changes during the following 90 years. 

This produces some jarring anachronisms.  IQ, for example, crops up frequently in the text, despite single figure IQ measures being called into question long before the 1950s and multi-dimension assessments being in use since the beginning of the 20th century.

Another is the importance of labour unions.  Again, Young couldn’t have foreseen the forthcoming crises in the union movement, but I couldn’t tell if his predictions were serious or satirical, or both.

And then there’s the use of ‘he’ as the default pronoun, despite women’s equality being a very live issue at the time due to women having done ‘men’s’ work during WW2, and equal pay being very much on the political agenda. Women are marginalised in the workplace in Young’s vision of the meritocracy, so maybe he was being satirical.  Who can tell?

It’s a small world

By this time, I was puzzled by how frequently I’d encountered references to Young’s concept of ‘meritocracy’ recently.  The Rise of Meritocracy might have made interesting and entertaining reading in the 1950s, but other than highlighting some issues about education and social mobility, it didn’t seem especially informative or currently relevant.

Then I reached page 159 (of 180 pages).  There, Young quotes from a fictitious ‘Chelsea Manifesto’ published by the Technicians Party in 2009. The Manifesto refers to “the best that has been thought and known in the world”, a modified quotation from, as Young puts it, ”the almost forgotten Matthew Arnold”. What Arnold actually said in the preface to his book Anarchy and Culture, was “the best which has been thought and said in the world” [my emphasis], but you could be forgiven for assuming Young was quoting Arnold directly.  That misquote provided a plausible explanation for why why I’d seen Young (and Arnold) cited so frequently recently. 

In January 2010 Civitas published a book by David Conway called Liberal Education and the National Curriculum. Conway deals with Matthew Arnold’s ideas in some detail – and quotes him correctly.

In May 2010 Michael Gove was appointed Education Secretary for the new Coalition government.  In 2011 the West London Free School opened, the first free school in the country to sign a funding agreement with the Secretary of State for Education – Michael Gove.  The West London Free School was co-founded by Toby Young, Michael Young’s son.  It was soon after this that Michael Gove began using the Arnold quote – or rather ‘started throwing mangled versions of it around in lofty speeches’ as Phil Beadle puts it in an article on the Teachwire site.

In 2011 Gove referred to “the best that has been thought and written” [my emphasis] in a speech to Cambridge University, and again in 2012 in a letter to Tim Oates, a director of Cambridge Assessment. In 2013 the same misquote appears in Gove’s (in)famous ‘Mr Men’ speech to teachers at Brighton College. And in 2014 in an interview with Anthony Horowitz. and in a speech to Policy Exchange.

Now, it could be that Michael Gove is a big fan of Matthew Arnold. But if so, why does he misquote him and miss so many opportunities to name-drop? I’m picturing a more likely explanation; that Toby Young mentioned his dad’s Arnold reference to Michael Gove who thought it would make a good soundbite.  That would explain why Arnold and Young senior were suddenly back in vogue.

In 2014 Civitas published a somewhat less scholarly work – Toby Young’s Prisoners of the Blob. On the Civitas webpage about Young junior’s book, Arnold is quoted accurately – twice.  And interestingly, Toby refers to 1950s education and Harold Wilson describing comprehensive schools as ‘grammar schools for all’. 

Would Michael Young have agreed?  Having tried to untangle the fact from the fiction, the satire from the seriousness, and the quotes from the misquotes – I have no idea.


Arnold, Matthew (2006). Culture and Anarchy. Oxford World Classics.

Young, Michael (2017). The Rise of the Meritocracy. Routledge.

Hobbes’ Leviathan and the dangers of implicit assumptions

I’ve just read Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan*.  All I knew about the book beforehand was Hobbes’ proposal that only a sovereign with absolute authority could prevent human life being ‘nasty, brutish and short’. This was puzzling because Hobbes lived through the English civil war, caused in large part by Charles I acting in an autocratic manner. Leviathan explains where Hobbes’ idea came from.

Hobbes was born near Malmesbury Wiltshire, during the attempted invasion by the Spanish Armada in 1588. His father, a clergyman, disappeared from the scene following an assault on a parishioner, and young Thomas was supported by his uncle, who provided him with a good education. Hobbes proved an able scholar, became fluent in Greek and Latin, enrolling at Oxford University in 1601, later transferring to Cambridge and graduating in 1608. He became a tutor to the Cavendish family, an association that was to last his whole life.  At the outbreak of civil war in 1640, Hobbes fled to Paris, where for a couple of years he tutored the future Charles II.


Leviathan, Or The Matter, Form, & Power Of a Common-Wealth Ecclesiastical And Civil was written following a serious illness, and published in 1651 while Hobbes was still in exile.  The title is taken from the book of Job 41.33-34; ‘Leviathan’ is the name of a sea-monster (28.27) “…upon earth there is not his like, who is made without fear.  He beholdeth all high things; he is a king over all the children of pride.”

For Hobbes, all truth is God’s truth.  In the past, God had revealed his truth directly “as one man speaketh to another” (35.3), but now there were only two sources – nature and holy Scripture (the Bible).  In Leviathan Hobbes explicitly uses both sources to make his case.

The book is in four sections:  Of Man, Of Commonwealth, Of A Christian Commonwealth, and Of The Kingdom of Darkness.  In the first, Hobbes attempts a systematic analysis of human nature. That forms the basis for his exploration in the next section of what a collective commonwealth or social contract could look like, based on “the principles of nature only” (32.1). He then moves on to truth revealed in the Bible.  ‘Of a Christian Commonwealth’ introduces the principles of “supernatural revelations of the will of God” (32.1).  ‘Of The Kingdom of Darkness’ covers the misinterpretation of Scripture, ‘vain philosophy’, ‘fabulous traditions’, and cui bono (who benefits).

Hobbes’ argument

Having set out the characteristics of human nature in ‘Of Man’ Hobbes argues the natural state of man is one of war (13.9).  The only remedy, he concludes in ‘Of Commonwealth’, is for people to surrender some of their liberty to a sovereign monarch or assembly with absolute power, who would then be able to best protect them (21.9).

In ‘Of A Christian Commonwealth’ Hobbes draws on evidence from the Bible. He points out “God not only reigned over all men naturally by his might; but also had peculiar subjects” (35.3).  God had made covenants with these peculiar (special) subjects; first with Adam, then Abraham and his descendants.  The covenant with Abraham was renewed when God gave Moses the Law.  A new covenant had been made through the death and resurrection of Jesus – this time with Christian believers.  

Hobbes argues that God is the true sovereign of his special peoples, but that “…by the Kingdom of God, is properly meant a Common-wealth, instituted (by the consent of those which were to be subject thereto) for their civil governmentGod was King, and the high priest was to be (after the death of Moses) his sole viceroy, or lieutenant” (35.7).  The Law of Moses was both ecclesiastical and civil and the high priest had both ecclesiastical and civil powers. God later allowed the powers to pass to a king, and Hobbes sees this structure of government continuing in the Christian era, despite God’s covenant changing substantially.

The evidence

Hobbes argues carefully, relies heavily on evidence, and counters common objections to his model of government.  But he frequently glosses over any evidence that contradicts his view.  Here are some examples…

From nature 

Hobbes was right that war had been a constant scourge throughout human history, and most people had led lives that were “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.  Many wars had doubtless occurred because monarchs didn’t have enough power to keep their subjects safe. But Hobbes takes these observations to their logical conclusion, despite logical conclusions not being inevitable in real life. After all, there had been times of peace, regions that managed to escape war for long periods, and not everyone’s life had been nasty, brutish and short.  Hobbes himself had led a reasonably comfortable (if very eventful) life, dying at the ripe old age of 91.

From the Old Testament 

To justify his argument for a sovereign rather than a priest being God’s viceroy, Hobbes cites events described in I Samuel 8. Samuel had appointed his sons as judges, but they “turned aside after lucre, and took bribes, and perverted judgement”.  The elders of Israel complained to Samuel and said “now make us a king to judge us like all the nations”.  Samuel consulted God, then pointed out in detail the downside of having a king – essentially ‘he’ll take all your stuff’. But the elders persisted so God said “Hearken unto their voice, and make them a king”. 

Hobbes recognises the elders’ complaint about the corruption of Samuel’s sons was a pretext, when really they wanted a king “like all the nations”.  The children of Israel had form when it came to being like other nations; worshipping foreign gods, making graven images, building altars in high places, etc. You can almost hear God sighing as he lets his people have what they ask for. Hobbes is aware that the elders were deposing the high priest as God’s viceroy or lieutenant, but sees that as OK because God agrees, and glosses over the ‘like all the nations’ point.

From the New Testament 

Hobbes is aware that the new covenant with Christian believers raised big questions about ecclesiastical and civil government. He acknowledges that: the new Kingdom of God is a spiritual one and won’t become an earthly one until Jesus returns; Christian believers don’t all live in the same geographical area with the same laws and the same king; there are new biblical instructions for appointing church leaders; and the Roman Catholic church had both ecclesiastical and civil powers, but Hobbes recognised the authority of the Church of England (33.1). How does he resolve those tensions?

Hobbes maintains God is still king over all, still appoints earthly viceroys or lieutenants, and God’s law remains both ecclesiastical and civil.  (42.10).  Churches should follow biblical principles for their governance (including voting for church leaders), but the job of the church is to persuade people of the truth, not to coerce them (42.8-10).  And the Roman Catholic church is merely a church; sovereigns can consult the Pope on matters of religion, but then “the Pope is in that point subordinate to them” (42.80).

But to justify his model Hobbes cites biblical passages exhorting Christians to obey those in authority because they’re ordained by God (42.10).  For Hobbes “this obedience is simple” (20.16). But he overlooks corollary exhortations in the same passages; that husbands should love their wives as Christ loved the church, masters should treat their servants justly, and that the duty of those in authority is to promote good and prevent evil. Ironically, he also cites a response from Jesus to a question about authority that shows Jesus didn’t think obedience was at all simple.

The tribute question 

During Jesus’ life on earth, the inhabitants of Judea were required to pay taxes to the occupying Romans. The Pharisees and Herodians (supporters of Herod Antipas, the Jewish ruler), seeking to “entangle him in his talk”  (Matthew 22.15), asked Jesus whether it was lawful to pay tribute to Caesar.  It was a trick question – Jesus knew either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ would have been the wrong answer. So he requests a tribute coin and asks whose image and superscription is on it.  The reply – “Caesar’s”. The coin was probably a Tiberian denarius, which bore abbreviations meaning “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus. Highest Priest”

Jesus’ response “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and unto God the things which are God’s”, is sometimes interpreted as drawing a distinction between the secular and spiritual.  But for first century Jews, and for Hobbes, that distinction didn’t exist.  Jesus’ audience would have realised the significance of what he said; all things were God’s, so Caesar had power only because God permitted it.  On top of that, the coin carried the graven image of a man who claimed to be divine and a high priest – claims that amounted to blasphemy. Jesus was making the point that earthly rulers were also obliged to keep God’s law. But Hobbes doesn’t comment on the nuance of Jesus’ reply (20.16). 

Hobbes’ response to issues such as rulers doing evil, or ordering people to do evil or to deny their faith, is that faith is a private (internal) matter that no ruler can control.  And if you disobey the ruler for good reason, you take the consequences, but ultimately that doesn’t matter because you’re answerable to God and your reward will be in heaven (43.23). The reason Hobbes skirts round evidence that contradicts his model becomes apparent in the last section of the book – ‘Of The Kingdom of Darkness’.

Universities, Aristotle and evidence

Up to this point, I’d seen Hobbes as a rationalist/empiricist. After all, he’d met Galileo and Descartes, emphasised reason, dismissed superstition, and based his argument on a systematic evaluation of evidence. Like most of his contemporaries he also believed in God and in the truth of the Bible, but not uncritically – he was aware of the issues around the authority of Scripture (33). But reading ‘Of The Kingdom of Darkness’, it dawned on me I’d misunderstood Hobbes’ worldview.

Hobbes is scathing about his university education.  He’s also very critical of Aristotle.  Initially, I assumed Hobbes’ complaint was that Aristotle made errors, but the university accepted Aristotle’s teaching uncritically; he says it didn’t teach proper philosophy, but rather ‘Aristotelity’ (46.13).

The penny didn’t drop until Hobbes refers to “Aristotle, and other heathen philosophers” (46.32), even though he had previously complained the University taught Roman religion, Roman law, and the art of medicine, “and for the study of Philosophy it hath no otherwise place, then as a handmaid to the Roman Religion” (46.13). But Hobbes didn’t just think the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers were wrong about some things – he thought they couldn’t be right because they were heathens

Implicit assumptions

When reasoning, we all start with assumptions. These are often implicit, either because we’re not fully aware of them, or we take it for granted that others share them.  I know from bitter experience that implicit assumptions can easily lead to wrong conclusions, or can result in disputes that could have been avoided had the assumptions on all sides been made explicit.  

Hobbes sees history as God’s plan unfolding, and his truth gradually being revealed. That plan included a new covenant with Christian believers, God appointing earthly rulers with ecclesiastical and civil powers, with the church subservient to those rulers.  Conveniently for Hobbes’ model, that’s exactly what had happened when Henry VIII had founded the Church of England in 1534.  Hobbes even views the Authorised version of the Bible as canonical because James I decided it was (33.1).   

Hobbes is critical of Aristotle because Aristotle’s religious beliefs (implicit assumptions) shaped his theories about the physical world – for example attributing the motion of inanimate objects to their inherent characteristics (46.24). And philosophers’ uncritical acceptance of Aristotle’s essentialism had led to absurd ideas about souls (46.15ff). 

But Hobbes had developed a blind spot when it came to the impact of his own religious beliefs on his thinking about government.  Hobbes’ conclusion that kings are divinely appointed, is based only on evidence that supports that conclusion.  And his belief in his conclusion means he repeatedly overlooks evidence that contradicts it. 

My implicit assumption that Hobbes’ worldview was a rational-empirical one, rather than one based on religious belief and confirmatory evidence only, was due to the opening chapters of Leviathan ticking the rational-empirical boxes.  I had to read a considerable amount of counter-evidence before it dawned on me I was wrong.  For me, Hobbes’ Leviathan has been an object lesson in checking implicit assumptions.

*I read the Oxford World Classics’ edition of Leviathan, edited by JAC Gaskin, and reissued in 2008. It follows Hobbes’ paragraph numbers and headings. You can also read the Project Gutenberg edition here. It has the paragraph headings, but not numbers. I also referred to the Authorised Version of the Bible ( first published in 1611), which Hobbes would have been familiar with.

Civitas and coronavirus

Civitas recently published a paper entitled Is Coronavirus unprecedented? It’s a good question. The review is subtitled A brief history of the medicalisation of life, and the first six chapters offer a fascinating account of how disease in general and epidemics in particular, have been perceived from the 4th century BC onwards. Evidence includes accounts from Thucydides, Bede, Boccaccio, Machiavelli, Defoe and Camus, describing epidemics such as typhus, bubonic plague, smallpox and cholera. The review encompasses models of medicine, citing Hippocrates, Lucretius, Galen, Chaucer, Bacon and Hobbes. The authors also examine the outcomes of attempts to prevent the spread of disease, such as the forced isolation of infected communities.

The lessons the authors seem to want us to learn are that pandemics are “part and parcel of human existence” (p.19); that the “startled overreaction” of governments to the current Coronavirus pandemic is a result of the “exaggerated pursuit of national health” (vii) and the medicalisation of modern life; and that measures to prevent the spread of pandemics often do more harm than good, There’s some truth in all of those conclusions, but the authors arrive at them only by overlooking several important factors. Let’s take each conclusion in turn.

pandemics are part and parcel of human existence
Until relatively recently, that was true. And people accepted it, but only because there was no alternative; as the authors point out “whether populations grew or shrank had little to do with medicine despite its best efforts” (p.39). But the acceptance of pandemics as a fact of life was a reluctant one, as indicated by historic responses to plagues. Infected individuals, households or communities were isolated, some people turned to strict religious observance, some fled from cities to the country if they could, and if they couldn’t, they’d often abandon themselves to a “‘shameful and disordered life’” (p.12). Plagues, although part and parcel of life, were seen as a scourge.

In recent decades things have changed. In the last 30 years smallpox has been eradicated and progress is being made towards eradicating polio, malaria, syphilis, measles, rubella and rabies. Most people, throughout history, would probably have seen that as a good thing.

the ‘exaggerated pursuit of national health’ and the medicalisation of modern life
Has the attempt to eradicate some diseases led to the medicalisation of modern life? ‘Medicalisation’ of normal life does occur, notably in respect of responses to adverse life events or poor living conditions. People who feel sad or anxious are often considered to have ‘depression’ or ‘anxiety’, and to require medication, when they’re actually experiencing a normal response to circumstances. But doctors can’t always tell whether or not those people will recover spontaneously given time, and often medicate because they don’t have time to diagnose properly in a 10 minute appointment, support services have long waiting lists, and dealing with environmental causes is beyond their remit; at least medication can help patients get on with their lives in the meantime.

But a viral infection doesn’t need to be ‘medicalised’ to damage health – it does so regardless of how people categorise it. And medical knowledge about its infectivity, symptoms, and how to treat them is essential to governments making socio-economic decisions.

The authors seem to see the possibility of eradicating diseases as naively utopian, and as opening the door to authoritarianism: “After 1945, WHO programmes of disease eradication reinforced the authority of science and the medicalisation of life” (p.36). This prompts a rather odd conclusion: “Whether populations grew or shrank …changed utterly after 1945, and in not very well-understood ways” (p.39). On the contrary, the ways in which it changed are very well understood, but have been explored in fields other than theology and political science – the author’s specialisms.

measures to prevent the spread of pandemics often do more harm than good
The review points out that the cordons sanitaires put in place to isolate infected communities and prevent plague spreading, often caused additional problems. Trade ceased and food shortages occurred, triggering civil unrest. If the cordon were policed by the military following a time of conflict, the unrest could also be political (p.27). Isolation measures undoubtedly cause harm and do economic damage. But the authors blithely overlook the catastrophic damage caused by not isolating infected people. The disruption to normal life resulting from widespread death, sickness, and long-term health problems in survivors during a pandemic has been enormous.

The authors see Coronavirus as a “mild contagion” (p.34), and claim “governments embraced an epidemiological prediction of death rates of 1 per cent of the West’s population unless they locked down the economy, quarantined households and suspended all non-essential activity.” (p.viii)

That’s not the case. The mortality rate for Coronavirus was estimated at 1% if nothing were done to prevent it. Lockdown wasn’t the only option. If Exercise Cygnus had been properly carried out in 2016, and national and local plans put in place for responding to a highly contagious virulent infection, the UK could have had the capacity to test and trace, and to manufacture sufficient PPE, so lockdown could have been avoided entirely. But that didn’t happen, probably because in 2016 the UK government was focussed on Brexit rather than public health. The findings of Exercise Cygnus were classified, but were leaked by The Guardian in May 2020. The report indicated that the UK was poorly prepared for a serious epidemic. Lockdown was necessary only where countries lacked test and trace capability. Describing the pandemic as ‘unprecedented’ is a convenient way of distracting attention from that.

It’s also worth noting the review doesn’t mention the Asian flu pandemics of 1957 and 1968, after the formation of the NHS. In the UK, life for those uninfected carried on much as usual (although this Lancet article shows a typist wearing a mask).

There were reasons for the nation just carrying on. In the 1950s and 1960s, epidemics were the norm. There were annual outbreaks of measles, mumps, rubella, whooping cough and chicken pox. There were sporadic outbreaks of smallpox and diphtheria. Intensive care facilities were relatively basic so only a limited number of people would have benefited from hospital admission. In the 1957 Asian flu epidemic, the death rate was estimated at 0.3%, less than a third of the rate for Covid-19, but there were significant economic consequences. Factories, offices and mines closed, and sickness benefit payments amounted to £10m.

Even Alex Tabbarok, a libertarian economist, cites the growth rate the US economy in 1957 following the Asian flu pandemic as -4% in the last quarter and -10% in the first quarter of 1958. But as he points out, many references to this recession don’t even mention the pandemic as a contributory cause.


Pandemics have indeed been part and parcel of human existence, and will continue to be. However virulent or infective they are, they have a devastating effect on human wellbeing, by their impact on mortality rates, health or the economy. We have the technology and knowledge to minimise that damage, as happened in the SARS-CoV outbreak in 2002-4, and in several outbreaks of Ebola since it was first identified in 1976.

Inadequate preparation was identified as a cause for the damage caused by the 1957 flu epidemic and inadequate preparation was directly responsible for the lockdown put in place to limit the spread of Covid-19.

The authors refer to the “anxious insecurity” they claim has been caused by the “medicalisation of life” (p.39) but overlook the anxious insecurity, panic, grief, and economic devastation caused by disease that dogged human beings until the advent of modern medicine.

The authors of this report do something that I’ve seen increasingly recently. They begin with a belief, cite evidence that supports their belief, and overlook evidence to the contrary from relevant fields – in this case biology, medicine and economics. Another case of policy-based evidence, rather than evidence-based policy.


Jones, DM & Webb, E (2020). Is Coronavirus unprecedented? A brief history of the medicalisation of life. Civitas.

Michaela: duty, loyalty and gratitude

duty and loyalty
In ‘National Identity’, his chapter in The Power of Culture, Michael Taylor explains that the Michaela Community School’s values are communitarian (p.78). Communitarianism in turn is based on the principle of self-governing small communities. The idea is that communities are essential for individuals to thrive, and in return for community support, individuals are expected to ‘give something back’. Michaela students’ obligations to the school, the wider community and the nation are framed in terms of duty.

Michael sees loyalty as a corollary of duty, and claims “The family and local community are an integral part of this, but the most logical point of our loyalty, whilst leaving plenty of room for critical analysis, should be to the nation”. He goes on, bizarrely, to frame rights in terms of possessing a passport; “As well as ensuring that pupils know that they have certain rights which are accorded to them by virtue of having a British passport, they also have a series of obligations and responsibility to their fellow citizens” (p.78). Do only people with passports have rights?

It’s clear that Michaela teachers feel a strong sense of duty toward their students. They’re committed to ensuring these young people grow into knowledgeable, civilised adults who lead fulfilling lives. But the emphasis in this book is on the students’ duty, rather than the teachers’. There are hints that’s because Michaela students tend to arrive with an awareness of their ‘rights’, but not of the responsibilities that go with them.

rights and responsibilities
Michaela doesn’t seem to think much of the contemporary emphasis on ‘rights’. Michael says that to “move away from the appalling world views and racism that have led to so much misery” is ‘admirable’ but that “embracing diversity in this country is often associated with a rejection of Britishness and in particular, Englishness” (p.74). And ”we have gone too far in Britain in creating a culture where a significant number of people appear to believe that rights are not always mirrored by responsibilities” (p.78).

As a history teacher, Michael must be aware of how the current focus on rights came about. For centuries British people (in common with the rest of the world) either had rights granted (or withdrawn) by a powerful minority, or they had to fight for rights, sometimes at great cost. And not always against invaders – the powerful minorities were usually distinctly British, and in particular, English. Mass education and improved communication have resulted in people becoming increasingly fed up with the focus being on their responsibilities rather than their rights, and many feel it’s time that changed.

Why would the Michaela narrative (Michaela is keen on narratives) overlook the inequity inherent in British history? My guess is that it would call into question the school’s rather hierarchical view of society and the value of the high status positions students are expected to aim for.

I agree the contemporary emphasis on rights glosses over responsibilities. It’s possible that Michaela students are taught about their responsibilities and rights, but I didn’t spot any evidence of that. Instead, the school seems to have given the rights-and-responsibilities pendulum a hefty shove in the direction of responsibilities. That’s understandable, given the current climate, but isn’t going to help students comprehend their role in a democratic society.

the social contract and entitlement
Something noticeable by its absence from The Power of Culture is the concept of the social contract. That’s odd, because Michaela is keen on British culture, and the social contract is largely a British idea (e.g. Hobbes, Bacon, Locke) that underpins our constitution. The term social contract usually refers to a principle of national governance, but can be used to describe any social agreement between an individual and a group. Social contracts vary between individuals and change over time; they’re fluid, flexible arrangements that can be explicit (enshrined in law for example) or implicit (people might not be aware that there is a social contract until someone breaks it).

Why is the social contract missing from the Michaela model? I’d hazard a guess that’s because Locke and Rousseau subscribed to it, and they of course, are associated with ‘progressive’ education – a no-no for Michaela.

Michael claims “the antithesis of duty is entitlement” (p.78). I’m not sure duty has an antithesis as such, although a sense of entitlement can undermine a sense of duty. But as residents of the UK, Michaela students do have entitlements, and it’s OK to feel entitled to them; duties and entitlements can exist side-by-side. The social contract can include entitlements. In the UK, for example, all children are entitled to an education (although in English law it’s framed in terms of a parental duty). Children are entitled to a place at a state school if parents request that. The state recruits and pays teachers to provide a suitable education for those children, which brings us to another key feature of Michaela culture – gratitude.

Michaela students are expected to express gratitude for the work their teachers and other school staff do, via verbal ‘appreciations’ at lunchtimes (followed by two claps), and via written postcards (there are examples on pp.129-30 in Iona Thompson’s chapter ‘The Culture of Gratitude’). The emphasis is on how hard teachers work, how many hours they put in, and a question from a student at another school “But isn’t that your job Miss?” is described as ‘obnoxious’ (p.125).

I think it’s appropriate to make children aware they live in a country with a long democratic tradition, where primary and secondary education are free at the point of use, and to be aware this isn’t the norm across the world. And it’s appropriate to hope they appreciate teachers’ commitment. But teachers volunteer for the job and they are paid. Students are unpaid conscripts who are required to be educated, not only for their own benefit, but also for the common good. Most students don’t have any option but to attend school, and their teachers are paid to provide them with a suitable education, so expecting students to express their gratitude formally seems a bit much.

Incidentally, I think It’s reasonable to expect students to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, because most cultures use such non-costly tokens to facilitate social interaction. But everyone knows ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ are tokens, and they’re are easy to use even if you actually feel no obligation or gratitude whatsoever. If more costly tokens are expected (such as ‘appreciations’ or postcards), some students will be happy to oblige regardless of what they really feel, and students who don’t feel grateful, or struggle to express themselves, will feel under pressure to comply regardless. It reminds me of the little girl being interviewed about Sunday School who said she always answered questions with ‘Jesus’ or ‘God’ “because they like it when you say that”.

values, culture and knowledge
Michaela’s explanation of its values highlights a recurring feature of the self-styled ‘traditional’ teachers’ discourse. The teachers, quite rightly emphasise the importance of knowledge in education. They draw attention to the difference between experts and novices, and point out that novices don’t usually have sufficient knowledge to mimic the behaviour of experts or ask the kinds of questions experts would ask, so ‘discovery’ is often an inefficient way of learning; direct instruction is usually more effective.

In the classroom students by definition are novices, and the teacher by definition is the (subject) expert. But many traditional teachers don’t apply the expert-novice distinction outside the classroom to areas where the teachers themselves are novices. So, cognitive science has been cited to justify particular pedagogical methods favoured by traditionalists, but the ‘cog sci’ is often based on snippets of information picked up second- or even third-hand from other teachers. The ‘cog sci’ has often been just plain wrong, because the teachers in question don’t have sufficient domain-specific knowledge.

So, despite Daniel Willingham carefully presenting “just about the simplest model of the mind possible” (Willingham 2009), his model has been wrongly interpreted as representing cognition as a whole. And teachers have been diligent in debunking some educational ‘myths’ (brain gym, discovery learning, learning styles) but have blithely replaced them with others such as;

-knowledge in long term memory is ‘secure’,
-knowledge in long term memory is always available and doesn’t take up any ‘space’ in working memory,
-all schemas are ‘chunked’ so a large schema forms only one item in working memory,
-all skills are domain-specific and can’t be transferred,
-children’s brains are the same as teachers’ brains.

Teachers with expertise in English literature seem especially prone to replacing the principles of cognitive science with principles from their own discipline. So much for skills being domain-specific.

It’s puzzling why the traditional teachers have consulted so few psychology teachers or cognitive scientists. My guess is that’s partly because experts are likely to say “it’s a bit more complicated than that”, and investigating the complications would involve the traditional teachers in more work (they see learning as ‘hard’). Another reason is they’d have to re-think their model of teaching and learning.

Cognitive science is a rather esoteric area, so teachers couldn’t be expected to know much about it (although there’s nothing stopping them getting an overview from an expert, or from an undergrad textbook – traditional teachers are keen on textbooks). But values and British culture aren’t especially esoteric, and are key features of public discourse, so you’d expect a school that’s published a book about them to be well-informed about their provenance. Instead, there are whole facets missing from their model.

I fail to see how Michaela can reconcile its claim that it wants students from deprived backgrounds to improve their life chances via education, with failing to question an inherently inequitable model of society, and ignoring the British history that’s resulted in that very deprivation.


Michaela Community School (2020). The Power of Culture, Katherine Birbalsingh (ed.). John Catt.

Willingham, Daniel T (2009). Why Don’t Students Like School? Jossey-Bass.

Michaela: colonising the curriculum?

If all I’d known about the Michaela Community School was its day-to-day routine, I’d have raised little more than an eyebrow. That’s in part because day-to-day life at Michaela looks remarkably like day-to-day life at the grammar school I attended half a century ago. What prompted me to raise more than an eyebrow is the new book from the Michaela Community School, The Power of Culture.

As far as the day-to-day is concerned it’s packed with positive practical ideas. I noted particularly;
-creating liberating pathways for students
-taking a long term view of conduct
-catching the students being good
-not expecting them to ape experts
-presenting knowledge in context
-mini introductions to practical, useful non-academic knowledge
-the outside speaker programme
-whole-class marking
-no targets
-no performance related pay
-all school staff (including admin & cleaners) being involved.

On a day-to-day level, Michaela’s methods are obviously effective. Students learn, raise their expectations, improve their behaviour and get good exam results. It’s when it came to the school’s ethos (beliefs and values) that I felt the framework began to wobble.

The Michaela ethos might reflect the pre-existing beliefs of staff, but the school also appears to have resorted to a bit of post-hoc justification for its practices. Rather than practice emerging from a coherent, thought-through set of beliefs and values, I get the impression teachers have;
1. seen ineffective or counterproductive practices or values in other schools (students learn little, have low aspirations, and their behaviour is out of control),
2. reacted against those practices,
3. tried alternatives,
4. and only then identified beliefs and values that justify the alternatives.

The lack of coherence and thinking-through is important, because beliefs and values are taught explicitly at Michaela and can have a significant impact on students’ lives. In this post I focus on a key feature of the Michaela ethos highlighted in The Power of Culture – British history and culture.

British culture
Michaela has reacted strongly against calls to ‘decolonise’ the curriculum, as Katie Ashford explains in ‘Schools should teach Dead White Men’. Although her initial description of the aims of ‘decolonisation’ advocates is pretty accurate, I felt Katie goes on to caricature their position by citing extreme views. Some advocates of ‘decolonising’ might think ‘our society is entirely racist’ (p.59), be calling for the removal of dead white men from the curriculum (p.63), or want only black writers to be included (p.67), but most don’t. What they’re concerned about is the implicit assumptions underpinning the curriculum that can push our thinking in a particular direction without us being aware of it. They’re calling for a restructuring of the curriculum that views its content from an inclusive, egalitarian standpoint, rather than from the point of view of dominant cultures.

Michaela’s view in contrast, is that each of their students is British, lives in England, and in order to participate fully in British/English life, needs to know about British/English history and culture, a point Michael Taylor expands on in ‘National Identity’.

What is Britishness?
Michael understands why schools celebrate cultural diversity. But he claims that is ‘often associated with the rejection of Britishness and in particular, Englishness’. Despite this, people ‘feel British and people feel English’ (p.74). For Michaela, a sense of British and English identity is engendered by the Union flag, the Queen’s birthday, St George’s Day, ‘important national songs’ (National Anthem, Jerusalem, I Vow to Thee my Country), Westminster Abbey, the Palace of Westminster, St Paul’s Cathedral and WW1 battlefields. I wouldn’t question the importance of students knowing about those symbols, but St George’s Day is the only one that pre-dates the colonial era – which lends weight to the decolonisers’ point.

Now, I feel as British and English as the next British/English person, but what makes me feel British/English is older, more egalitarian symbols; leaders being ‘first among equals’ (a principle espoused by, amongst others, Celts and Anglo Saxons), observations such as “when Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” (John Ball, Peasants’ Revolt, 1381) and Civil War battlefields. For me, the symbols embraced by Michaela represent a social hierarchy that has a longstanding tendency to take away people’s stuff and give it to its posh mates, something that all Michaela students need to be aware of. They need to be aware of it because Michaela points its students in the direction of the upper echelons of that social hierarchy (Russell Group and Ivy League universities, civil service internships etc).

Clearly, questions need to be asked about why those from ethnic minorities and/or state schools are under-represented in high status professions. And students from ethnic minorities and/or state schools should indeed be supported to aim high academically. But questions also need to be asked about why certain professions have high status, and why other equally important ones don’t. As a community, we don’t need only high flyers. We need people who can do the nuts-and-bolts hands-on work that keeps the country going. Many of those jobs don’t have much social cachet, but are interesting, demanding, well-paid and essential. I’m not talking about menial work here; I’m asking why farming, engineering, manufacturing, retail management, local government or nursing, don’t have the same allure for Michaela as say, wealthy bankers (p.64) or the civil service (p.115).

Unity and diversity
Michaela, with some justification, wants to shift the focus from our differences to what we have in common, from the individual to the community. But in doing so it overlooks an important principle. One of the functions of a democracy is to safeguard the diversity of individuals; to protect our liberty to live as we think fit, free from arbitrary constraint (see previous post). Human diversity isn’t an optional extra; it’s vital for our standard of living and quality of life. Communities simply wouldn’t be able to adapt or develop if we were all the same.

And although people in Britain do have much in common, we are also inherently very diverse, a point that Michael glosses over. For example, he says “language, law and custom are all concrete realities that link people from Caithness to Cornwall” (p.79). But in Cornwall you might encounter a campaigner for Cornish independence whose child attends a Cornish-speaking nursery. In Caithness you’d be quite likely to bump into an ardent Scottish nationalist, speaking Gaelic, living under Scottish law, and practising customs unique to Scotland. There are historical reasons for that, which Michael as a history teacher must be aware of, but doesn’t mention. (His chapter on teaching history is well worth reading, incidentally).

One thing most cultures throughout human history have in common, is that those with few resources have been exploited by those with more. And that doesn’t only entail some nations exploiting other nations; many have exploited others in their own community. It’s a feature shared by all cultures, and something they all end up trying to prevent. Getting students from ethnic minority and state school backgrounds into high status professions is one way to tackle inequality, but won’t effect much change if those same students are taught to revere symbols of the very system that has exploited in the past – and is still exploiting.

Michaela doesn’t seem to understand the problematic aspects of the political and social hierarchy. It’s as if the school has been so busy reacting against the prevailing focus in education on diversity, context and structural issues, it’s come up with an alternative model that ignores those factors completely.

Colonising the curriculum
There’s a good argument for students focusing on the history and literature of the country they live in, and as Katie points out there isn’t time to teach about all cultures in depth (p.70). But students don’t need to learn everything in depth. What they do need is an overview of world history and culture – from a world, rather than a British perspective.

But Michaela’s wider perspective isn’t a world one, it’s a Western/European one (pp. 53, 69, 71, 172). It’s as if agriculture, city states, administration, industry, trade, and arts and crafts didn’t exist prior to the ancient Greeks. I felt the Western/European perspective is epitomised in two sentences children are expected to learn. One is;

Shakespeare is widely recognised as the greatest writer of all time, and was a great dramatist. (p. 379)

Shakespeare is certainly considered by many to be the greatest writer of all time, but the word ‘recognised’ implies his status is a matter of fact, rather than a matter of opinion. Some ancient Greeks could be contenders for the title, especially if all their manuscripts were still in existence. And who knows what great dramatists preceded them?

The other sentence is the answer to the second of two questions:

What word means ‘the belief that there is one God’?
How were the Israelites different from the Canaanites? (p.197)

My childhood was steeped in Bible stories and my immediate answer to the second question was “the Canaanites lived in the land of Canaan; the Israelites invaded it”. But the answer students are expected to give is “the Israelites differ from the Canaanites because, whereas the Israelites were monotheistic, the Canaanites were polytheistic”. That’s certainly a difference, but it probably wouldn’t have been the one foremost in the minds of the Canaanites at the time – which again reinforces the decolonisers’ argument.

It’s possible Michaela staff are presenting students with a Western/European/British/English history and culture and Judeo-Christian beliefs from a critical perspective, but I didn’t spot any evidence of that. Instead, teachers appear to accept the current social hierarchy as a given – uncritically. And the criterion for ‘success’ (beyond academic achievement) is attaining high social status rather than leading a fulfilling and useful life. That’s ironic because the criterion for ‘success’ in the street culture familiar to many of Michaela’s students, is also high social status. I’m not convinced that the principles of loyalty to the nation and giving something back (p.78) will eradicate the inequities inherent in British culture.

Michaela culture – a Swiss cheese model?

The Michaela Community School was founded in 2014 by Katharine Birbalsingh (as Headteacher) and Suella Braverman (currently Attorney General). The school’s ‘no excuses’ approach to education generated much controversy, but their first GCSE results outperformed the national average and their Progress 8 score ranked them fifth nationally.

In 2016 the school published The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers, a summary of the Michaela ethos, with contributions from its staff. I found it perturbing and blogged about it here . But those were early days. The school recently published Michaela: The Power of Culture, which I hoped would offer more insights into its success. I got as far as Jonathan Porter (deputy head) explaining the rationale for the school’s culture, in ‘Michaela – A School of Freedom’. I’ve had to take a break. Here’s why…

Jonathan opens by claiming that we have a ‘romantic instinct’ that yearns for “emancipation rather than prescription”, for “a loosening rather than a tightening of the fence” (p.39). He says the romantic instinct has its origins, not in “ancient theory – which understood true freedom to mean virtuous self-government”, but in John Locke’s 17th century proposition that human beings in their natural state are ‘ungoverned and unconstrained’ (p.40). Jean-Jacques Rousseau largely concurred with Locke, and according to Jonathan, Rousseau’s views on education set out in Emile, or On Education (1762) have had a profound and detrimental influence on education in Britain.

Isaiah Berlin revisited Locke’s ideas in the 1950s. Berlin posited two types of liberty: Negative liberty that seeks to minimise the obstacles to people doing what they want to do; and positive liberty, the freedom to self-determine, which might require some input from the state. Berlin was wary of positive liberty due to the potential for state control. But Jonathan agrees with Charles Taylor that “…we cannot erase the view of positive freedom entirely, not least because our ability to exercise any freedom we might have hinges on certain ends” (p.45).

Michaela adopts a ‘no excuses’ principle for behaviour management and Jonathan sees this as grounded in the ‘ancient theory’ of virtuous self-government. His reasoning appears to be that children often make poor choices about how to use their liberty (he goes into detail about the temptations of social media), and that the ‘ancient theory’ had stood the test of time until Locke came along. Many of Jonathan’s claims stand up to scrutiny – but some don’t. Also, he tells only half the story – and the other half is important.

Virtuous self-government
As I understand it, the ‘ancient theory’ of virtuous self-government recognised that people (individually and collectively) were generally unhappy about external control, hence the ‘self-government’ bit. But self-government alone didn’t guarantee true liberty – that was possible only for those not enslaved to their passions, a thread running through the liberty discourse. That meant virtue was essential for individuals and communities to enjoy true freedom.

Something Jonathan overlooks is that many (at least from Judea to Greece) who subscribed to the ‘ancient theory’ also believed that human beings had fallen from a prior state of grace. The human task was to remedy that fall via sacrifice, rituals, good works etc. Deities and their earthly representatives (prophets, priests, kings et al.) were usually involved. Promoting the idea that human moral status is inherently flawed, put the deities’ earthly representatives in positions of considerable power. But power structures don’t feature in Jonathan’s analysis.

Locke and Rousseau
Locke (and Rousseau) challenged the idea that we’re fundamentally sinful by nature and have to spend our lives making up for it. Instead, they proposed that whatever our moral status, we’re entitled to live our lives as we think fit, not as prescribed by social or religious institutions. Of course if we’re interacting with other people, our right to exercise our natural liberty is likely to conflict with someone else’s right to do the same, so we need some form of government to adjudicate, and some rules we all agree to comply with, to ensure a peaceful co-existence. This is the basis of Locke’s take on social contract theory, to which Rousseau also subscribed. Jonathan refers to social contract theory (p.40) but goes on, I felt, to caricature Locke’s liberty as Milton’s ‘licence’. Milton was right that for some “licence they mean when they cry liberty”, but that wasn’t what Locke and Rousseau meant. What they objected to wasn’t constraint per se, but arbitrary constraint – another point Jonathan refers to (p.40) but then bypasses.

Both Locke and Rousseau had direct experience of the doctrine of original sin being used to justify arbitrary constraint.The English civil war had begun shortly before Locke’s tenth birthday and his father served in the Parliamentary army. John was a bright lad and would have been well aware of what his father was fighting for. Rousseau had grown up in Calvinist Geneva but spent most of his adult life Catholic France, so had seen the doctrine of original sin from two very different theological perspectives. Locke’s and Rousseau’s ideas about liberty were responses to major issues of their day, and were popular because the ancient theory of virtuous self-government, and more importantly its implementation, were quite evidently no longer fit for purpose.

Virtue and power
Virtuous self-government is an appealing idea, but even by the 5th century BCE it had become clear it was feasible only in relatively small, completely independent communities. By then, the population of Athens had grown too large for direct participation in decision-making. Thucydides recounts discussions about whether decisions should be made by only a proportion of the population, or by representatives. And recounts the disagreements over who was ‘virtuous’.

By the 17th century CE, virtuous self-government had been found by many to be a necessary but insufficient foundation for society. You don’t need to believe in a deity to believe in virtue, but if virtuous self-government is the model a society has adopted, somebody ends up deciding what’s virtuous and what’s not. And that somebody is usually whoever has social or political power. After all, ‘virtue’ has been used to justify despotism, genocide, murder, torture and slavery – none of which feels particularly virtuous if you’re on the receiving end. The early Athenians argued that nature itself showed the strong should rule the weak, but unsurprisingly many of the tribes they tried to rule objected, on the grounds that they too wanted to govern themselves.

Of course by definition children don’t have sufficient experience or knowledge to make fully informed life choices. Locke considered the mind a tabula rasa; for him, it was important to ensure children’s early experiences were positive. Rousseau in contrast, had been a student in the school of hard knocks and felt it was important for children to find out about reality for themselves. I think Michaela is right that children need guidance and support from adults, to be taught effective life strategies, and to learn self-control in order to best exercise their liberty. But Jonathan doesn’t ask who decides what’s virtuous, or what the ends of education are – key issues for Locke and Rousseau.

Arbitrary constraints
Jonathan mentions arbitrary constraints, but sees them as political constraints (p.46) rather than social ones. There’s an example in his discussion of character (p.49). He says; “If pupils at Michaela are just one minute late to school, they will receive a 30-minute detention at the end of the day. We do make exceptions, although these really are exceptions. Most days a handful of detentions will be given to pupils who slept through their alarms, didn’t pack their bags the night before, or left home late but didn’t run to catch the bus… Although we are forgiving, a future employer may not be”.

I understand why pupils should be expected to arrive at school on time – it’s inconvenient for everybody if they don’t. But one minute late? And although the school might make allowances for exceptional circumstances, it isn’t forgiving – pupils are punished for transgressions.

The justification for the no excuses approach to tardiness is that a future employer might expect down-to-the-minute punctuality. It’s true that some industries (e.g. transport, manufacturing) do operate at that level of punctuality – but in those industries lateness has direct, real-life, non-arbitrary consequences. It’s also true that many employers require employees to clock in and clock out, but they usually use flexitime, which means arriving a minute later means leaving a minute later to compensate. And many employers, particularly in the type of employment Michaela encourages its students to aspire to, don’t monitor minutes or even hours, as long as the work gets done. So what is the ‘one minute late’ rule really about? There’s a fine line between discipline and control. It was a line Locke and Rousseau were aware of but it’s not clear where Michaela’s line is.

It looks to me as if Michaela has chosen a ‘no excuses’ approach to school culture because it has certain administrative advantages, then justified that choice by appealing to authorities that support their position, such as the virtuous self-government model, Aristotle, Graeco-Roman tradition, 1000 years of history, and Edmund Burke (p.46ff). Rather than use theory from opposing authorities (e.g. Locke, Rousseau, Berlin) to test the school’s model for possible flaws, it caricatures opposing theories as responsible for licence, undermining the British education system, and allowing children unrestricted access to social media.

Virtuous self-government is an appealing idea, but survived for 1000 years of history largely because it was shored up by religious and secular power hierarchies with those at the top deciding what was virtuous and how far self-government extended – as  Michaela is doing. But Michaela’s students will take their place in an adult world that relies on people negotiating outcomes; at the state level, in the workplace and between individuals. Will a ‘no excuses’ culture prepare them effectively for that?

Virtuous self-government and a ‘no excuses’ culture work for some people and some institutions, but the ancient Athenians, contemporaries of Locke, Rousseau, and Berlin, and state education systems from Prussia to the UK, have found that they don’t work for everybody –  which is largely why those systems changed.  Virtuous self-government and a ‘no excuses’ culture have face value appeal, but as systems of governance they’re as full of holes as a Swiss cheese.

apprentice without a sorcerer

Cummings’ essay Some Thoughts on Education and Political Priorities highlights his admiration for experts, notably scientists, but this doesn’t prevent him making several classic novice errors. These errors, not surprisingly, lead Cummings to some conclusions contradicted by evidence he hasn’t considered. I’ve focused on four of them.

oversimplifying systems

Cummings knows that systems operate differently at different levels, and although all systems, as part of the physical world involve maths and physics, you can’t reduce all systems to maths and physics (p.18). But his preoccupation with maths and physics, and lack of attention to the higher levels of systems suggest he can’t resist doing just that. In his essay maths is mentioned 473 times (almost 2 mentions per page) and physics 179 times. Science gets 507 references and quantum 238. In contrast, the arts get 8 mentions and humanities 16. Ironically, given his emphasis on complex systems, Cummings seems determined to view complex knowledge domains like education, politics, the humanities and arts, only through the lenses of maths, physics and linear scales.

Cummings’ first degree is in history, but he knows a lot of scientific facts. How deep his understanding goes is another matter. He opens the section on a scientific approach to teaching practice with the famous ‘Cargo Cult’ speech in which Richard Feynman accused educational and psychological studies of mimicking the surface features of science but not applying the deep structure of the scientific method (p.70). Cumming’s criticism is well-founded; evidence has always influenced educational practice in the UK, but the level of rigour involved has varied considerably. Ironically, Cummings’ appeal to scientific evidence then itself sets off down the cargo-cult route.

misunderstanding key concepts: chunking vs schemata

Cummings claims “experts do better because they ‘chunk’ together lots of individual things in higher level concepts – networks of abstractions – which have a lot of compressed information and allow them to make sense of new information (experts can also use their networks to piece together things they have forgotten)” (p.71).

‘Chunking’ occurs when several distinct items of information are perceived and processed as one item. The research e.g. Miller (1956), De Groot (1965) and Anderson (1996), shows it happens automatically after groups of low-level (simple) items with strongly similar features have been encountered very frequently, e.g. Morse code, words, faces, chess positions. I’ve not seen any research that shows the same phenomenon happening with information that’s associated but complex and dissimilar. And Cummings doesn’t cite any.

Information that’s complex and dissimilar but frequently encountered together (e.g. Periodic Table, biological taxonomy, battle of Hastings) forms strong associations cognitively that are configured into a schema. What Cummings describes isn’t chunking; it’s the formation of a high level schema. Chunks are schemata, but not all schemata are chunks.

Cummings is right that experts abstract information to form high level schemata, but the information isn’t compressed as he claims. The abstractions are key features of aspects of the schema e.g. key features of transition metals, birds or invasions.  I can just about hold all the key features of birds in my working memory at once, but not at the same time as exceptions (e.g ostrich, penguin) or features of different bird species. The prototypical features make it easier to retrieve associated information, but it isn’t retrieved all at once. If I think about the key features of birds, many facts about birds and their features spring to mind, but they do so sequentially, not at the same time. The limitations of working memory still apply.

The distinction between chunking and schema formation is important because schemata play a big part in expertise e.g. Schank & Abelson (1977) and Rumelhart (1980). Despite their importance, Cummings refers to schemata only once, when he’s describing how his essay is structured (p.7). The omission is a significant one with implications for Cumming’s model of how experts structure their knowledge.

experts vs novices

Experts in a particular field derive their expertise from a body of knowledge that’s been found to be valid and reliable. They construct that knowledge into schemata, or mental models. New knowledge can then be incorporated into the schemata, which might then need to be configured differently. Sometimes experts disagree strongly, not about the content of their schemata, but about how the content is configured.

The ensuing debates can go on for decades. A classic example is the debate between those who think correlations between intelligence test scores indicate that intelligence is a ‘something’ that ‘really exists’, and those who think the assumption that there’s a ‘something’ called intelligence, shapes the choice of items in intelligence tests, so correlations should come as no surprise (see previous post). Another long-standing debate involves those who think universal patterns in the structure of language mean that language is hard-wired in the brain, versus others who think the patterns emerge from the way networks of neurons compute information.

Acquiring key information about an unfamiliar knowledge domain takes time and effort, and Cummings has obviously put in the hours. What’s more challenging is finding out how domain experts configure their knowledge – experts often take their schemata for granted and don’t make them explicit. Sometimes you need to ask directly (or be told) why knowledge is organized in a certain way, and if there are any crucial differences of opinion in the field.

Cummings doesn’t seem to have asked how experts structure their knowledge. Instead, he appears to have squeezed knowledge new to him (e.g. chunking) into his own pre-existing schema without checking whether his schema is right or wrong. Or, he’s adopted the first schema he’s agreed with (e.g. genes and IQ). He admits to basing his genes/IQ model largely on Robert Plomin’s Behavioural Genetics and talks by Stephen Hsu. He dismisses the controversies and takes Plomin and Hsu’s models for granted.

evaluating evidence

There are references to the scientific method in Cummings’ essay but they’re about data analysis, not the scientific method as such. A crucial step in the scientific method is evaluating evidence – analysing data for sure, but also testing hypotheses by weighing up the evidence for and against. This process isn’t about ‘balance’ – it’s about finding flaws in methods and reasoning in order to avoid confirmation bias.

But Cummings repeatedly accepts evidence in support of one thing or against another, without questioning it. I’d suggest he can’t question much of it because he doesn’t know enough about the field. Some that caught my eye are:

  • Assuming hunter-gatherers’ knowledge is “based on superstition (almost total ignorance of complex systems)” (p.1). Anthropology that might claim otherwise, is like other social sciences, summarily dismissed by Cummings.
  • Unsubstantiated claims such as “Aeronautics was confined to qualitative stories (like Icarus) until the 1880s when people started making careful observations and experiments about the principles of flight” (p.21). Da Vinci, Bacon, Montgolfiers, Caley? No mention.
  • Attributing European economic development between 14th and 19th centuries to ‘markets and science’ and omitting the role of the Reformation, French Revolution, or Enclosure Acts (p.108).
  • Uncritical acceptance of Smith’s and Hayek’s speculative claims about the benefits of markets (p.106).
  • Overlooking systems constraints on growth – in corn yields, computing power etc. (pp.46, 231-2). No mention of the ubiquitous sigmoid curve.
  • Overlooking the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth when discussing shortage and innovation (p.112).
  • Emphasising the importance of complex systems with no mention of systems theory as such (e.g. Bertalanffy’s general systems theory).
  • Ignoring important debates about construct validity e.g. intelligence and personality (p.49).

not just wrong

People are often wrong about things and usually a few minor errors don’t matter. In Cummings’ case they matter a great deal, partly because he’s so influential, but also because even tiny errors can have huge consequences. I chose the example of chunking because Cummings’ interpretation of it has been disproportionately influential in recent English education policy.

Daisy Christodoulou in Seven Myths about Education (2014) takes the assumption about chunking a step further. She’s right that chunking low-level associations such as times tables allows us to ‘cheat’ the limitations of working memory, but wrong to assume (like Cummings) high-level schemata do the same. And flat-out wrong to claim “we can summon up the information from long-term memory to working memory without imposing a cognitive load.” (Christodoulou p.19, my emphasis). Her own example (23,322 x 42) contradicts her claim.

Christodoulou’s claim is based on Kirschner, Sweller & Clark’s 2006 paper ‘Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work’. The authors say; “The limitations of working memory only apply to new, yet to be learned information that has not been stored in long-term memory. New information such as new combinations of numbers or letters can only be stored for brief periods with severe limitations on the amount of such information that can be dealt with. In contrast, when dealing with previously learned information stored in long-term memory, these limitations disappear.” (Kirschner et al p.77).  The only evidence they cite is a 1995 review paper proposing an additional cognitive mechanism “long-term working memory”.

I have yet to read a proponent of Kirschner, Sweller & Clarke’s model discuss the well-known limitations of long-term memory, summarised here. Greg Ashman for example, following on from a useful summary of schemata, says;

One way of thinking about the role of long-term memory in solving problems or dealing with new information is that entire schema can be brought readily into working memory and manipulated as a single element alongside any new elements that we need to process. The normal limits imposed on working memory fall away almost entirely when dealing with schemas retrieved from long-term memory – a key idea of cognitive load theory. This illustrates both the power of having robust schemas in long-term memory and the effortlessness of deploying them; an effortlessness that fools so many of us into neglecting the critical role long-term memory plays in learning”.

Many with expertise as varied as English, history, physics or politics, have enthusiastically embraced findings from cognitive science that could improve the effectiveness of teaching. Or more accurately, they’ve embraced Kirschner, Sweller and Clarke’s model of memory and learning.  Some of the ‘cog sci’ enthusiasts have gone further. They’ve taken a handful of facts out of context, squeezed them into their own pre-existing schemata, and drawn conclusions that are at odds with the research. They’ve also assumed that if an expert in ‘cog sci’ makes a plausible claim it must be true, but haven’t evaluated the evidence cited by the expert – because they don’t have the relevant expertise; cognitive science is a knowledge domain unfamiliar to them.

Nevertheless objections to the Kirschner, Sweller and Clarke model are often dismissed as originating either in ideology or ignorance. Ironic, as despite emphasising the importance of knowledge, evidence and expertise, many of the proponents of ‘cog sci’ are patently novices selecting evidence to support a model that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Murray Gell-Man is right that we need people who can take a crude look at the whole of knowledge (p.5), but the crude look should be one informed by a good grasp of the domains in question.

In 1797, Goethe published a poem entitled Der Zauberlehrling (Sorcerer’s Apprentice). It was a popular work, and became even more popular in 1940 when animated as part of Disney’s Fantasia, with Mickey Mouse playing the part of the apprentice who started something he couldn’t stop. The moral of the story is that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Cummings has been portrayed as a brilliant eccentric and/or an evil genius. I think he’s an apprentice without a sorcerer.


Anderson, J (1996) ACT: A simple theory of complex cognition, American Psychologist, 51, 355-365.

Christodoulou, D (2014).  Seven Myths about Education.  Routledge.

de Groot, A D (1965).  Thought and Choice in Chess.  Mouton.

Kirschner, PA, Sweller, J & Clark, RE (2006). Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching Educational Psychologist, 41, 75-86.

Miller, G (1956). The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information, Psychological Review, 63, 81-97.

Rumelhart, DE (1980). Schemata: the building blocks of cognition. In R.J. Spiro et al. (eds) Theoretical Issues in Reading Comprehension.  Lawrence Erlbaum: Hillsdale, NJ.

Schank, RC & Abelson, RP (1977). Scripts, Plans, Goals and Understanding: an Inquiry into Human Knowledge Structures.  Lawrence Erlbaum: Hillsdale, NJ.




not all in the genes

Dominic Cummings’ 2013 essay Some Thoughts on Education and Political Priorities reveals his keen interest in the implications of intelligence research for education. His Endnote “Intelligence, IQ, genetics, and extreme abilities” (p.194) runs to 17 pages.

General Intelligence

If I’ve understood Cummings’ model of intelligence correctly, it goes like this: General Intelligence (‘g’) is a trait that’s largely genetically determined and can be measured as IQ. If we could identify the genes involved, we could spot those with high cognitive ability who are needed to find the solutions to the complex problems facing us.

There’s certainly robust evidence that cognitive ability is largely genetically determined (by multiple genes), remains stable, and is a good predictor of lifetime achievement (p.197). We do need people with high IQs to work on solutions to world problems. And children with high IQs need an appropriate education. I share Cummings’ frustration that DfE officials prioritised their notion of equality over the need to develop talent (p.64). But his model is also flawed at several levels. It includes three key components that are worth examining in more detail;

  • A hypothetical human trait – general intelligence
  • The correlation between factors within intelligence tests
  • IQ


Towards the end of the 19th century, researchers got very interested in measuring human characteristics. Some, such as height and weight, were easy to measure, but others – like ‘physiognomy’ or ‘eventuality’- were trickier because it wasn’t obvious what the features of ‘physiognomy’ or ‘eventuality’ were.


You can of course measure any human characteristic you fancy. You decide what the features of ‘adhesiveness’ or ‘ideality’ are and how to measure them, and hey presto! you’ve measured ‘adhesiveness’ or ‘ideality’. There might of course be some disagreement about the features of ‘adhesiveness’ or ‘ideality’ – or even about their very existence.

Also in the late 19th century, industrialised economies were desperate for a literate, numerate, ‘intelligent’ workforce. That requirement was one of the drivers for mass education.

In his 1904 review of measures of intellectual ability, the psychologist and statistician Charles Spearman decided intellectual ability could be measured using performance in: Classics, Common Sense, Pitch Discrimination, French, Cleverness, English, Mathematics, Pitch Discrimination among the uncultured, Music, Light Discrimination and Weight Discrimination (Spearman p.276). Essentially, he defined intelligence in terms of intellectual abilities. More recent measures such as Verbal Comprehension, Visual Spatial, Fluid Reasoning, Working Memory, and Processing Speed (Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children – V) define intelligence in terms of cognitive abilities.


Spearman went a step further. The positive correlations between the factors in his test convinced him “that there really exists a something that we may provisionally term ‘General Sensory Discrimination’ and similarly a ‘General Intelligence’” (Spearman p.272). And the correlations between scores in cognitive ability tests have convinced others of the existence of a ‘something’ we may provisionally term ‘general intelligence’.

I haven’t been able to find out if Spearman used ‘g’ to refer to the correlation between factors, or the hypothesized ‘something’, or both. Whichever it was, critics were quick to point out that correlation doesn’t indicate causality. A positive correlation between Spearman’s factors exists, certainly. Whether ‘general intelligence’ exists other than as a folk concept is another matter.

Critics also pointed out the circularity in Spearman’s argument. Intelligence tests were assumed to measure intelligence, but because no one knew what intelligence actually was, the tests also defined intelligence – even if they varied considerably. Spearman’s measures were very different to Binet & Simon’s , and neither bears much resemblance to the WISC, or to Raven’s Progressive Matrices. As Edwin Boring put it in 1923, “intelligence is what the tests test”.


In 1912, the German psychologist William Stern developed the concept of IQ –Intelligenzquotient. IQ (initially mental age divided by chronological age, expressed as a percentage) tells you how an individual’s test score compares to the average for the population. But the criticisms of ‘intelligence’ also apply to IQ. IQ tests undoubtedly measure aspects of cognitive ability, but we don’t know whether or not they measure a genetically determined trait we may call ‘intelligence’. Or even if such a trait exists.

Advocates for general intelligence haven’t take the criticisms lying down. Cummings quotes Robert Plomin’s dismissal of the circularity criticism: “…laypeople often read in the popular press that the assessment of intelligence is circular – intelligence is what intelligence tests assess. On the contrary, g is one of the most reliable and valid measures in the behavioral domain” (p.195).

It’s worth noting that Plomin uses g and intelligence interchangeably, even though intelligence is a hypothesized trait and he refers to g as a measure. There’s no doubt that g is reliable and valid when measuring some cognitive abilities. Whether those abilities represent a genetically determined trait we may term ‘intelligence’ is another matter – which Plomin goes on to admit: “It is less clear what g is and whether g is due to a single general process, such as executive function or speed of information processing, or whether it represents a concatenation of more specific cognitive processes…” It’s also worth noting that Plomin attributes the circularity argument to laypeople and the popular press, rather than to generations of doubting academic critics.

The implicit assumptions made by those emphasizing the importance of g and IQ, are important because they can have unwanted and unintended outcomes. One is that correlations between factors might hold true at population level, but not always at the individual level. Deidre Lovecky, who runs a resource centre in Providence Rhode Island for gifted children with learning difficulties, reports in her book Different Minds having to pick ‘n’ mix sub-tests from different assessment instruments because individual children were scoring at ceiling on some sub-tests and at floor on others. How intelligent are those children? Their IQ scores wouldn’t tell us.

Also, hunting for hypothetical snarks can waste a huge amount of time and resource. It’s taken over a century for us not to be able to find out what ‘g’ is. Given the number of genes involved ,you’d think by now people would have abandoned the search for a single causal factor. It’s a similar story for chronic fatigue syndrome (‘neurasthenia’ – 1869) and autism (‘autistic disturbances of affective contact’ – 1943); both perfectly respectable descriptive labels, but costly red herrings for researchers looking for a single cause.

Characteristics, traits, states, and behaviours

What convinces Cummings that intelligence, g and IQ are ‘somethings’ that really exist is evidence from behavioural genetics. Scientists working in this field have established beyond reasonable doubt that most of the variance in human intelligence, however you measure it, is accounted for by genetic factors. That shouldn’t be surprising. Intelligence is almost invariably defined in terms of cognitive ability, and cognitive ability emerges from characteristics such as visual and auditory discrimination, reaction time, and working memory capacity, all biological mechanisms largely determined by genes.

But not all human characteristics are the same kind of thing. Some characteristics such as height and weight are clearly physical and are easily measured. For obvious reasons genes account for most of the variance in physical characteristics.

The term trait applies to physical characteristics but also to stable dispositional characteristics. Disposition refers to people’s behavioural tendencies – how introvert or extravert they are, what they like and dislike, do and don’t do etc. The evidence from behavioural genetics suggests that genes also account for most of the variance in stable traits.

States are also dispositional characteristics, but they’re temporary and usually emerge in response to environmental factors. So Joan might be extravert and prone to angry outbursts, and Felicity might be introverted and timid, but both of them are likely to become anxious if fire breaks out in the office they share. Their reactions to the fire are largely genetically determined, but are triggered by an environmental event.

Behaviours are things people do. They are undoubtedly influenced by genetic makeup, but occur primarily in response to environmental factors, because that’s the main function of behaviour. Joan might try to extinguish the fire and Felicity might take the nearest exit, but both behaviours would be in response to specific circumstances. If we were pre-programmed automatons, the human race wouldn’t have lasted very long.

In support of his genes-determine-intelligence argument Cummings cites Stephen Hsu, a physicist turned behavioural geneticist, who claims that much of the nature/nurture debate has been settled. Hsu’s right in respect of the genetic influence on traits. But that still leaves plenty of room for the environmental influence on states and behaviours. That has significant implications for Cummings’ model of education.

Genes, intelligence and education

The principal components of Cummings’ model of education are genes, intellectual ability, effective teaching, and exam results. But in real life many other factors impact on educational outcomes. Take Ryan, Joan’s nephew, for example.

Ryan lives with his mum, a single parent. She cares for her father, disabled following a work accident, and her mother who has complex health problems. They live in a former industrial town, currently in economic decline. Ryan’s parents’ relationship broke down due to the financial and time pressures on the family.

Ryan has average intellectual ability, but episodes of glue ear when he was younger left him with a slight speech and language delay. He struggled with maths and reading and was often reprimanded for not following instructions. He loved physical activities, but the regulatory education framework required Ryan, as a child who was ‘falling behind’, to do less practical activity and more arithmetic and phonics.

Ryan soon began to disengage with school. He was referred for speech and language therapy and to the educational psychologist, but both had lengthy waiting lists. By his teens, Ryan had a low reading age, was making slow progress academically, and skipped school whenever he could. His mum couldn’t find paid work to fit around caring for her parents, and was on medication for anxiety and depression.

Genes undoubtedly account for some challenges faced by Ryan and his family; his family’s health, his intellectual ability, and quite likely his glue ear. But environment plays a significant role in the shape of income, diet, viral infections, and national economic, social, and education policy. So do life events (so commonplace their importance is often overlooked); where the family happens to live, grandfather’s accident, parents’ break-up, which school is closest to home.

Then there are specific behaviours on the part of Ryan, his parents, grandparents, teachers – and government ministers. Specific behaviours are often framed as a ‘choice’, but that choice is often highly constrained by circumstances.

Choose your metrics

Cummings measures the effectiveness of the education system by exam results (although he questions the quality of the exams). Exam results are positively correlated with IQ, and IQ is largely genetically determined. So his choice of metric means Cummings places a disproportionate emphasis on influence of genes on educational outcomes.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with IQ or exam results as metrics. If you want to find someone with good cognitive abilities, a modern intelligence test can identify them. If you want candidates with a mathematical ability of at least GCSE level, check out GCSE maths results.

But the choice of a single metric for something as complex as an education system shows an inadequate understanding of complex systems. And begs the question of what education is about. If quality of life in local communities were the key metric, the education system would look very different. By bizarre coincidence, the gene pool of large populations produces people with a wide range of abilities and aptitudes, just what those populations need in order to thrive. That wide range of abilities and aptitudes should be cultivated. Cummings’ choice of metric means the exam-results tail wagging the quality-of-life dog.

Accommodating a wide range of abilities and aptitudes doesn’t equate to having ‘low expectations’ for those with less than stellar exam results. There’s no virtue in people doing jobs they don’t enjoy and aren’t good at, and careers aren’t set in stone. An academic high flyer might become a superb potter, and a former train driver might get a PhD. If the education system doesn’t offer such opportunities, it’s to the detriment of all us.

Cummings would no doubt argue that his claims about education are evidence-based; he cites evidence for pedagogical approaches that improve exam results. But his starting point is an assumption that what the world needs is academic high flyers with high IQs and ‘extreme abilities’. He looks right past those with other abilities and aptitudes essential for communities to keep functioning. And those, who through no fault of their own, can make only a very limited contribution to their communities, but like all of us have a right to a decent quality of life.

Cummings first chooses his metric and then chooses supporting evidence, but only the evidence in support of it. Ironically history is littered with examples of academic high flyers with high IQs and ‘extreme abilities’ causing chaos for the rest of us. Cummings’ use of evidence is the subject of the next post.


Spearman, C.  (1904).  ‘General Intelligence’ objectively determined and measured.  The American Journal of Psychology, 15, 201-292.


Image from People’s Cyclopedia of Universal Knowledge (1883) via Wikipedia



Dominic Cummings on education

Dominic Cummings has become a highly influential figure. He steered the UK’s education system towards a ‘knowledge curriculum’, persuaded many who voted in the 2016 referendum that they wanted the UK to leave the EU, and is now well on the way to ensuring that Brexit gets done – whatever that entails.

In 2013 Cummings published online an essay entitled Some Thoughts on Education and Political Priorities. His thoughts extend to nearly 250 pages.  I had a couple of goes at reading them at the time, but was fazed by the plethora of references to mathematicians and physicists. My rusty A level maths and even more rusty O level physics weren’t quite up to checking them out.  Following Cummings’ spectacular return to public life, I scrolled past them and found myself in more familiar territory.  This is the first of three posts, on Cummings’ views of education, intelligence, and expertise.

An Odyssean Education

Cummings isn’t happy with education systems. He complains that students aren’t taught about some fundamentally important ideas, so political leaders lack them too, which explains poor political decisions. He believes the ideas could go a long way to resolving the global crises facing us, so it’s imperative they’re taught in schools and universities. He’s particularly interested in the education of people with a high IQ.

Cummings refers to Neitzsche’s distinction between ‘Apollonian’ thinkers using logical analysis and ‘Dionysians’ who use intuition and synthesis. The physicist Murray Gell-Man suggested a third group – ‘Odysseans’ – who “combine the two predelictions”, look for connections between ideas, and take a “crude look at the whole” (p.5). As Cummings puts it “An Odyssean curriculum would give students and politicians some mathematical foundations and a map to navigate such subjects without requiring a deep specialist understanding of each element” (p.7).  He’s right about the map. Human knowledge has increased exponentially over the past century, so in-depth specialisms have become the order of the day. The best anyone could currently achieve is a ‘crude look at the whole’ but that crude look is essential if we are to understand the challenges confronting us.

Cummings structures his Odyssean curriculum as a “schema of seven big areas” (p.7) sketched out on page 2:

  1. Maths and complexity
  2. Energy and space
  3. Physics and computation
  4. Biological engineering
  5. Mind and machine
  6. The scientific method, education, training and decisions
  7. Political economy, philosophy, and avoiding catastrophes.

The essay includes 15 Endnotes on specific topics, and a reading list. In this post, I focus on education, addressed in Chapter 6.

Uniformity vs diversity

Cummings is critical of an education policy that aims for increased uniformity of achievement, based on the assumption that all students have the same potential, and would reach it if aspirations were raised and equal opportunities provided. Cummings’ model in contrast, assumes students don’t have the same potential because differences in ability are largely genetic in origin. He thinks more effective teaching will raise attainment levels for all, but will also widen the attainment gap (pp.74, 83). In my view, both models are wrong due to flaws in their implicit starting assumptions. Here’s why:

Human beings have been ‘successful’ in the evolutionary sense, in part because speech enables us to communicate complex information to each other. To survive and maintain good quality of life, everyone doesn’t need to know everything, but we each need access to the expertise of farmers, plumbers, electricians, doctors, lawyers, poets and dancers to name but few.

What enables populations to adapt to changing environments is genetic diversity. And genetic diversity produces people with the diverse abilities, aptitudes and interests that enable communities to adapt to changing circumstances. Communities thrive, not because of their uniformity, but because of their diversity. A good general education is important for everyone because we each need to know how the world works, but the last thing we need is for everyone to be the same.

The diversity does indeed mean that improving teaching would result in larger gaps in attainment – but only if you measure attainment on a linear scale such as exam results or IQ. Cummings is right that we desperately need people with high IQs who can do the maths required to model complex systems, and politicians who understand what’s being modelled. But our society couldn’t function if it consisted entirely of people who were a whiz at complex equations and/or political decision-making; we need people with a wide range of abilities, aptitudes and interests to make life sustainable and worth living.

Uniformity appeals to policy-makers because one-size-fits-all policies look like they’ll save money.  A diversity narrative is often used to make uniformity more palatable. But diversity in communities doesn’t only make life more interesting and colourful, it’s essential for our biological and economic survival and well being.


Genetic diversity provides communities with the wide range of abilities, aptitudes and interests they need to thrive. Ironically, the suitability of an education to aptitude (what someone is good at) has been embedded in English education law since at least 1944, but has received scant attention since the advent of the national curriculum and standardised testing.

Paying attention to aptitude doesn’t mean every student needs a personalised education programme, nor that schools should undertake vocational training. But developing the inherent qualitative variation in aptitude would mean the ensuing quantitative variation in exam scores became less important. Gaps in academic achievement matter only to societies that accord a disproportionately high status to professions requiring academic skills.

For example, doctors and lawyers are generally well paid and have high social status. The pay and social status of train drivers and electricians is generally lower. But train drivers and electricians are no less essential to a functioning community. Cummings lauds scientists, and is pretty dismissive of doctors and lawyers, but the people who maintain the complex infrastructure of the developed world don’t feature at all in his model of education, other than often being on the wrong side of the IQ bell curve.

Cummings’ proposals

To fix the problems with the education system, Cummings proposes (pp.69-83):

  1. Largely eliminate failure with the basics in primary schools
  2. Largely eliminate failure with the basics in secondary schools
  3. A scientific approach to teaching practice
  4. Maths for most 16-18
  5. Specialist schools from which all schools (and Universities) can learn
  6. Web-based curricula, MOOCs, and HE/FE
  7. Computer Science and 3D printers: bits and atoms, learning and making
  8. Teacher hiring, firing and training
  9. Prizes
  10. Simplify the appallingly complicated funding system, make data transparent and give parents a real school choice.

Most of his criticisms of the education system are valid ones, but criticism is the easy bit – it’s more challenging to come up with alternatives. Cummings generates ideas like they’re going out of fashion, but almost invariably overlooks context; notably what caused the problems, and the implications of his ideas being implemented. Here are some examples:

Maths     For Cummings ‘the basics’ are English, Maths and Science, with Maths the sine qua non because it provides the ‘language of nature’ (p.63). His proposal that 16-18 year-olds continue to study ‘some sort of Maths course’ (p.75) was implemented in 2015 in the form of students being required to re-sit Maths and English GCSEs if they got lower than a C grade. As far as I’m aware the scheme wasn’t piloted, placed a huge burden on an FE sector already pared to the bone, and many students found their career plans stalled due to an arbitrary and unnecessary requirement.

Reading     The UK’s achievement in reading is contrasted with that of Finland (p.69), but overlooks the fact that Finnish orthography is highly transparent (almost 1-1 correspondence between graphemes and phonemes) whereas English orthography is highly opaque.

Specialist schools     Cummings has high hopes for specialist schools (pp.75-77) but doesn’t mention their introduction in the 1988 Education Reform Act, or that under New Labour most state secondaries became specialist schools. Evaluations showed the consequent small improvement in exam results was as likely due to the additional funding, rather than specialist status as such. There doesn’t appear to have been a subsequent surge in superb scientists or brilliant politicians.

Teacher hiring, firing, and training     For Cummings “real talent is rare, mediocrity ubiquitous” (p.81). He would recruit academic high flyers, pay them well, get “roughly averagely talented teachers” to use Direct Instruction scripts and allow head teachers to sack the ones who still didn’t make the grade. He doesn’t mention working conditions or why teacher retention is so low.

Cummings also claims “managing schools is much easier than being a brilliant maths teacher and requires only the import of competent (not brilliant) professional managers from outside the education world” (p.83).  The transferable management skills hypothesis has been widely tested since the 1980s and been found seriously wanting.

Lectures     We’re told “students remember little from traditional lectures” (p.72). That might because traditionally, lectures formed only the framework for the students’ learning. Traditionally, students were expected to do further reading. And the ‘proven’ Oxbridge tutorial system is not as Cummings claims, limited to Oxford and Cambridge (p.78). It’s been in use in every university I’ve been involved with from the 1970s to the present. Maybe I’ve just been lucky.

Funding     The education funding system certainly needs rationalising, but costs vary across geographical areas, so who decides what a “flat per pupil amount” with “as few tweaks as possible” (p.81) means?

Parent choice     The other things described above … could be done even if one disagrees with the idea of a decentralised system driven by parent choice and prefers the old hierarchical system run by MPs, Unions, and civil servants” (p.83). Cummings appears completely unaware that the ‘old hierarchical’ system was decentralized and run by local authorities, school governors (including parents) and head teachers. And would probably have stayed that way if it hadn’t been deliberately centralized relatively recently by the Thatcher and subsequent governments.

Data transparency     Few would want to “define success according to flawed league table systems based on flawed GCSEs” but if “private schools have defined success according to getting pupils into elite universities” (p.82) where does that leave the bulk of the population? We’re not all going to get into elite universities – if we did, they wouldn’t, by definition, be elite.

Scientific evidence     Cummings is right that an evidence-based approach to education is vital, but has a touching faith in randomized controlled trials (RCTs) (p.64). The medical community’s objections to RCTs was not, as Cummings claims, because their expertise would be challenged by data, but because individual patients don’t always share the features of a large population. The same is true for school pupils.

Cummings follows Feynman in accusing educational researchers of ‘Cargo Cult’ science – mimicking the surface features of scientific research but not applying its deep structure (p.70). Regrettably, deep structure is noticeable by its absence from the hotch-potch of findings about cognition, lectures, tutorials, testing, genetics and IQ that he proposes as an alternative.

Sub-system optimization

Cummings repeatedly does what systems theorists call subsystem optimization at the expense of system optimization. A bit of a tongue twister, but it’s a simple and common phenomenon. The components of systems, by definition, are linked to each other, so tweaking one part is likely to result in changes to another. And improving part of the system can sometimes have the effect of making things worse overall. If the components of a system are loosely coupled (weakly connected), the impact might be negligible. If they’re tightly coupled (strongly connected) the impact can be substantial.

Cummings should know this because he devotes an entire section to the features of complex systems (pp.17-21), but appears have filed complex systems under ‘mathematical modelling’ rather than ‘public policy’ in his mental directory. He doesn’t apply systems theory to his own proposals, even though he recognizes many poor political decisions are made because politicians don’t understand how complex systems work.  A similar criticism can be applied to his thoughts on genetics and IQ, the subject of the next post.










I’ve just re-read John Holt’s How Children Fail and Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion. It was instructive to read them in tandem.

Holt’s book is a reflection on his observations of children learning (Maths mainly) in the US between 1958 and 1961. I read it a couple of decades later during a PGCE course.  My first take on How Children Fail was that it was a series of fascinating insights into children’s misunderstandings of abstract concepts. My own Maths education in contrast – in a primary school that would have delighted Lady Plowden – was all about grasping concepts.

I re-read Holt’s book when my children were young. What struck me second time around was his use of concrete objects, notably Cuisenaire rods, to get abstract concepts across. As an Infant, I’d been introduced to Cuisenaire rods, and found them utterly confusing – fingers were far more helpful. I was a somewhat synaesthetic Infant; each finger not only represented a number, but also had a distinctive colour. The Cuisenaire rods were different colours. Fingers were also faster. You could work out 5+3=8 in about a second on your digits, but it took significantly longer doing trial-and-error matching à la Cuisenaire.

One of my children had real trouble with mathematical concepts. And with Cuisenaire rods, fingers, number lines and number sentences. The breakthrough came with the excellent Murderous Maths series. He was very keen on narrative, and found he could understand mathematical concepts explained via a story. He also discovered that if he pictured numerals in his head, they didn’t ‘move around’ like they did on paper. (We later found out he had a visual problem – convergence insufficiency – that explained all the visuospatial issues).

What stood out from my third and recent reading was how Holt deconstructs a child’s problem with a concept into its cognitive components. His description of Dr Caleb Gattegno teaching teenagers with severe learning disabilities (pp.98-101) is profoundly moving. Few teachers would have begun with the absolute basics (how patterns repeat) and few would have persevered until the students understood the patterns.

Holt and Lemov

Holt was born in 1923 and had experienced what he called a ‘tell-’em-and-test-’em’ education (p.151). He, his peers, and his teachers, learned how to game the system. Here’s Holt on a teacher giving his class a list of topics to cram for prior to college Board exams. “We got credit for knowing a great deal about ancient history, which we did not, he got credit for being a good teacher, which he was not, and the school got credit for being, as it was, a good place to go if you wanted to be sure of getting into a prestige college. The fact was that I knew very little about ancient history; that much of what I thought I knew was misleading or false; that then, and for many years afterwards, I disliked history and thought it pointless and a waste of time.”

Doug Lemov was born in 1967, soon after Holt’s book was published.  He struggled with school, due largely to social issues, but got to college and became a teacher. At which point he says “I was part of this educational system that was this great, giant ship that didn’t do the things it said it was set out to do.

After an MBA at Harvard (where he picked up more ideas about teaching), Lemov became a director of Uncommon Schools, which manages 53 charter schools in Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York.

Teach Like a Champion was published in 2010.  It’s jam-packed with practical tips for teachers – as is Holt’s. Lemov is deeply concerned about schools not doing their job and students failing to learn – as was Holt. He takes a step-by-step approach to teaching – as did Holt. But that’s where the similarity ends.

A significant difference between Holt and Lemov is how they frame those challenges. Lemov is about teaching, Holt is about learning. Lemov breaks down tasks into instructional steps, Holt is interested in the steps involved in students understanding concepts. Lemov is about controlling students’ learning, Holt is about them controlling their own learning. Lemov wants students from underprivileged backgrounds to have the knowledge that will enable them to ‘compete in college’ (p.39). Holt questions the quality of the knowledge of students from a tell-’em-and-test-’em system.

Both writers have concerns about schools that don’t succeed in educating children, especially those from deprived backgrounds.   Holt wants the children to understand important concepts, because the concepts will be important in later life.  If I’ve understood correctly, Lemov’s model involves providing children with the knowledge they need to get a college education, because that’s a gateway to better jobs, higher pay and could eventually bootstrap entire communities to a higher standard of living and better quality of life.

At first glance, Uncommon Schools appear to be pretty good at this. 99% of their students who graduated high school were accepted for college places, and 76% of those either graduated college or were on track to graduate. There’s no doubt that charter schools have improved high school graduation rates, but the picture is a mixed one, and I couldn’t find data on what proportion of Uncommon Schools students graduated high school.

A college education can open up many opportunities, so there’s some justification for the view that a school’s job is to do to get as many students into college focusing on students who engage and work hard. But that’s a very narrow view of education. Two rather telling phrases about college caught my eye in Lemov’s book.

no opt out

In the first, Lemov describes an Uncommon Schools Key Idea No Opt Out – ‘A sequence that begins with a student unable to answer ends with the student giving the right answer’ (p.31). The ‘sequence’ involves other students or the teacher providing the right answer, and the original student being asked the question again. In one example a student fails to read the word performance. Another student reads the word and the first student is asked to read it again. Lemov comments ‘it’s probably not worth the time to break down the error as the decoding skill the student struggles with is less closely related to the day’s objective. That said, [the teacher] has still firmly established a strong accountability loop. Lemov concludes ‘This ensures that everyone comes along on the march to college’. I’m sure Uncommon Schools would address the student’s issues with decoding, but the focus appears to be on the student’s accountability for their own learning, not on Holt’s focus – what might be posing an obstacle to it.

right is right

Another Key Idea is Right is Right, which involves using technical vocabulary. In the example given by Lemov, volume is not ‘the amount space [sic] something takes up’, but ‘the cubic units of space an object occupies’. This had me scratching my head. Cubic units are a quantification of volume, not volume per se. Also, gases have volume, but whether a gas could be described as an ‘object’ is debateable. Lemov comments ‘This response expands student vocabularies and builds comfort with the terms students will need when they compete in college.’

‘When they compete in college rather than ‘when they are in college’ seemed a rather odd way to frame college requirements. Over the past few decades of course, competition has been an underlying principle of economic policy in the developed world due to an assumption that it drives up quality. Competition can drive up quality if the competitors compete on quality. But it’s pretty clear they often don’t. The alternatives include underbidding, cheating, lying, bribing, gaming… whatever it takes to ‘win’. The sort of thing Holt describes about his college entry process.  Competition also wastes an enormous amount of time, energy, and resources that could be more effectively deployed via collaboration and co-operation. If competition produces winners, it also produces losers, and being a loser can in itself create problems.

Lemov’s world is one where there are right and wrong answers. And the right answers (even if they’re questionable, as in the definition of volume) are what allows you to ‘march to college’ and ‘compete’ in it. Lemov clearly wants as many students as possible to get to college. What isn’t clear is what happens to students who can’t or won’t comply with the Uncommon Schools approach to teaching and learning, or those who find that knowing the right answers isn’t enough at college or in later life.

Those are the students Holt is interested in. The ones who, try as they might, just don’t ‘get’ key concepts, but have figured out how to give the ‘right answers’ (popular strategies included letting a teacher or another student answer first and copy them, or to read the teacher’s body language for cues). Holt is also interested in the students who get to college by giving the right answers but have no proper understanding of the subject or interest in it.

Tell-’em-and-test-’em was widely used in early mass education systems. But many students, like those Holt observed, didn’t grasp what they were being told and tested on. In response during the post-war period, child-centred approaches became increasingly popular, and then began to lose touch with a fundamental feature of education – knowledge. The completely reasonable antipathy to learning entire lessons by rote morphed into avoiding learning anything by heart. Objections to being fed lists of facts turned into objections to learning factual information. The necessity of acquiring higher-level skills transformed into acquiring higher-level skills only. It’s not surprising that teachers who didn’t experience tell-’em-and-test-’em MkI are advocating tell-’em-and-test-’em MkII, but those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it, and Holt provides a vivid reminder that tell-’em-and-test-’em isn’t enough.


Holt, J (1965).  How Children Fail.  Penguin.

Lemov, D (2010).  Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques that put Students on the Path to College. Jossey-Bass.