Bold Beginnings – could do better

Bold Beginnings, an Ofsted report on the Reception curriculum, was published at the end of November. It caused a bit of a stir among Early Years teachers. I thought they might be over-reacting, an understandable tendency developed in response to endless assumptions that the children they teach ‘just play’. Last week, an open letter with over 1700 signatories questioning the report’s conclusions was published in the Guardian. An article in response wondered what all the fuss was about. So I read the report. Here’s what I thought. References in brackets are to the paragraph numbers.

The report was commissioned as part of a review of the curriculum. 41 primary schools  judged good or outstanding in their last Ofsted inspection (86) were visited and asked to complete an online questionnaire.

Implicit assumptions

The first thing that struck me was the implicit assumptions on which the report is based. Implicit assumptions are sneaky things.   For one thing, they’re assumptions; no one wheels out evidence to support them – and sometimes there isn’t any supporting evidence. For another thing, they’re implicit – no one spells them out, so they’re easy to miss. Sometimes the people making the assumptions aren’t aware that they’re making them. Here are three.

Falling behind  

The first implicit assumption appears in the first paragraph. It refers to the “painful and unnecessary consequences of falling behind their peers” (p.4). I find the idea of children ‘falling behind’ baffling. Falling behind what, exactly? The school population is, like any other large population, very varied. And then there’s the age range. Expecting the youngest children in a Reception class to be at the same level of attainment as the oldest, flies in the face of everything we know about human development and population statistics.   Then there’s “in 2016, around one third of children did not have the essential knowledge and understanding they needed to reach a good level of development [as defined by government] by the age of five” (6). Anyone with a basic knowledge of statistics would expect 50% of children to be developing more slowly than average in a large population. The assumption that children can ‘fall behind’ and should ‘catch up’ is made by an education system designed around administrative convenience, not the educational needs of children.

Increased expectations in Year 1

Reception and Year 1 teachers agreed that the vital, smooth transition from the foundation stage to Year 1 was difficult because the early learning goals were not aligned with the now-increased expectations of the national curriculum.” (p4 §8) The national curriculum isn’t a Law of Nature or Act of God. It’s a system designed by human beings. There is no reason why early learning has to adapt to expectations for children in Year 1. Year 1 expectations could instead adapt to early learning. The report complains “there is no clear curriculum in Reception” (p5 §3). There’s no reason why a clear Reception curriculum shouldn’t be developed, but the current lack of one might be because many children in Reception classes are below the statutory education age.

The curriculum

A third implicit assumption runs through the entire report. Despite the review being of the curriculum, the focus is relentlessly on reading, writing and mathematics – all fundamental, but only three of the skills children need to acquire to access a broad curriculum and understand how the world works.

Bold Beginnings appears to have been written by someone with little knowledge of what is taught and learned at the Early Years Foundation Stage. That might have been a deliberate choice to avoid the bias towards play-based pedagogy and child-initiated learning perceived by some headteachers (81), but it resulted in an impoverished analysis. The focus is on reading, writing and mathematics rather than the curriculum; play is mentioned numerous times but not discussed in detail; and the purpose of  education appears to be GCSE grades.

The three Rs

Schools are supposed to be places where children learn, and for Reception age children there is much to learn. About physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, sociology, geography, history, music, art and drama. I’m not recommending formal subject areas for 4-5 year-olds, but found it mystifying that the report makes only a passing reference to ‘science and the humanities’ (13) and ‘music and science’ (21).  The report’s author doesn’t seem aware that at this age children are forming basic concepts about solids, liquids, gases, plants and animals, maps, timelines, rhythm, melody, art materials, scripts and roles, that form the foundation of later learning (Rakison & Oakes, 2003).   Instead, the author sees reading, writing and number as “the building blocks for all other learning” (7), completely overlooking all the learning children do that doesn’t involve reading, writing or numbers.

Although speaking and talking are mentioned in passing, language skills are seen in terms of their contribution to reading and writing (p4 §3) not as an end in themselves. Reading and writing are crucial skills, but the report overlooks the amount of spoken communication that goes on between human beings at all levels.

The report’s author is a big fan of systematic synthetic phonics, but I felt painted themselves into a corner when discussing children’s books.  It makes sense for reading schemes to introduce grapheme-phoneme correspondences (GPCs) one-by-one, as the report recommends, to secure children’s knowledge and build up their confidence. Books with unfamiliar GPCs are cautioned against because they encourage children to use other strategies, such as guessing (53, 54). But it wasn’t clear how parents or teachers could avoid this if they read a wide range of stories to, or with, children.

And then there’s the mathematics. What’s actually discussed isn’t mathematics as such, or even arithmetic. It’s number. Number is obviously a foundational mathematical skill, but I couldn’t find any reference to shape, spatial relationships, or operations – all foundational mathematical concepts that most 4 year-olds are beginning to get to grips with.


The report mentions play numerous times but its role is seen as “primarily for developing children’s personal, social and emotional skills” (p4 §5). There are many references to teachers knowing how children learn through play, but what they know seems to be a mystery to the report’s author.   There’s a rather breathless account of children dramatizing the Three Billy Goats Gruff (35), suggesting that inspectors weren’t very familiar with an activity that’s probably been a feature of every nursery and infant class since at least the 1930s.


The report appears to see achievement solely in terms of succeeding at the tasks set by schools, rather than in terms of children getting a good knowledge and understanding of how the world works.   For example “The research is clear: a child’s early education lasts a lifetime. Done well, it can mean the difference between gaining seven Bs at GCSE compared with seven Cs.7”(5).  Leaving aside the fact that the reference refers to 8 GCSEs not 7, and that a correlation doesn’t indicate a causal relationship, framing the importance of education solely in terms of GCSE results is troubling. The author of the report doubtless got at least 7 B grades at GCSE, but that doesn’t appear to have equipped him or her with adequate research skills.

The research

Ofsted do not appear to be aware of the impact of their own inspections. For example, the statutory moderation of the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile comes in for some stick, one complaint being “a moderator expected to see three pieces of evidence for every separate sentence within the early learning goals” (77). I vividly recall my son’s Year 1 teachers complaining about the insistence of Ofsted in their previous inspection on exactly this.

Then, in Annex B, we have the online questionnaire sent to schools. Q1 doesn’t have an ‘other’ box for anyone completing the form who isn’t a head, early years or reception teacher. And in Q2 there’s an elementary error that most primary school pupils would know to avoid. The narrow focus of the report is clear in Q12. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen an Ofsted questionnaire cause raised eyebrows. One teenager thought a questionnaire sent to families “looks like it was written by a Year 7”. It did too. I’d expect better research skills from a regulatory body.

The narrative

Bold Beginnings isn’t an objective, dispassionate analysis of the Reception curriculum. Instead it propagates a particular narrative that goes like this: 1) Because the long-term outcomes are better for children who attend pre-school provision and attend it for longer, and 2) because teachers at good and outstanding primary schools believe that formal education begins in the Reception year, that 3) the Reception curriculum should be shaped by the increased expectations for children in Year 1, and 4) that reading, writing and number need greater emphasis, it stands to reason that formal education should start in Reception, be shaped by the Y1 curriculum, and should focus on reading, writing and number. But the narrative doesn’t hold water. Here’s why.

1) Research (Sylva et al 2014) indicates that long-term educational outcomes are better for children who have attended pre-school provision, and attended it for longer. That’s the current informal provision. The research doesn’t support the assumption that the earlier formal education starts the better. As far as I’m aware, there’s no evidence that starting formal education later (in some countries age 6 or 7) has a detrimental impact on long-term outcomes.

2) “Nearly 95% of the school staff who responded to Ofsted’s survey questionnaire believed that Nursery and/or Reception signalled the start of school. Leaders clearly believe that the moment a child starts attending their school, in whatever capacity, their educational journey has begun. While Year 1 may be the official start, it is clear that the Reception Year is more commonly recognised as the beginning of a child’s formal education” (3). That’s interesting, but an education system shouldn’t be designed around beliefs, whoever holds them. Initial teacher education (ITE) tutors come in for criticism from some headteachers for their emphasis on play-based pedagogy and child-initiated learning (81), but the ITE tutors’ beliefs, however strongly evidence-based, don’t play any part in the Bold Beginnings narrative. The word ‘believed’ is used 14 times in this report. That’s probably 14 times too many.

3) There’s no reason why the EYFS curriculum shouldn’t shape the Year 1 curriculum, rather than vice versa.

4) There’s no reason not to improve reading, writing and mathematics in Reception classes, but they are not “the building blocks for all other learning” (7) and the report ignores the vast number of other building blocks routinely developed by Early Years teachers.


This is not a well-researched, objective assessment of the Reception curriculum. The research is inadequate, the evaluation of evidence leaves much to be desired, and the recommendations are based largely on the beliefs of teachers in a sample of 41 schools. Ofsted should be leading the way. Instead, they are falling behind.



Rakison DH & Oakes, LM (eds) (2003). Early category and concept development: Making sense of the blooming, buzzing confusion.  Oxford University Press.
Sylva, K, Melhuish, E, Sammons, P, Siraj, I,  & Taggart, B (2014). Students’ educational and developmental outcomes at age 16: Effective Pre-school, Primary and Secondary Education (EPPSE 3-16) Project. Department for Education.





Toby and the social constructionists: intelligence, race & gender

Toby Young, journalist and co-founder of the West London Free School, and appointed to the brand new Office for Students (OfS), recently delivered the 2017 Constance Holden* Memorial Address. His title was “Liberal Creationism”. The text of the lecture has been published as an opinion paper in the Elsevier Journal Intelligence. Neither Toby nor the topic of intelligence are strangers to controversy, so I was curious about to what he had to say.

the fate of intelligence researchers

For the first couple of pages I was nodding along in agreement. Toby opens with a robust defence of intelligence researchers who have faced serious consequences for suggesting that biological factors contribute to intelligence – careers ending abruptly, ignominy, and worse. His description of their opponents as a ‘neo-Marxist intersectionality cult’, ‘Social Justice Warriors’, ‘Liberal Creationists’ and ‘anti-hereditarians’ had a ring of truth about it.

The intelligence researchers’ findings have generally supported the idea that human nature is in part biologically determined.  Historically this idea is tainted by its association with eugenics, and it’s that association, Toby suggests, that’s at the root of the opposition to the research. He claims the ‘anti-hereditarians’ are wrong to think of the biological aspects of intelligence as “inextricably bound up with these toxic political movements and fundamentally incompatible with liberal values” (p.3).  I think he’s right.

human nature and individual differences

After a brief tour of some anthropological controversies to demonstrate that all human beings have some psychological traits in common, Young moves on to “what divides us” beginning with individual differences. This is the point where I felt his argument weakened considerably.

Young says “when a progressive liberal listens to a behavioural geneticist talk about the biological basis of IQ and the positive correlation between IQ and socio-economic status, what they think they are hearing is a Social Darwinist argument in favour of the current distribution of wealth and power” (p.3). He argues that at the heart of the opposition to claims about the biological basis of human nature, whether IQ, gender or race, is social constructionism, which holds the view that “anyone who believes that human differences are rooted even in part in biology rather than socially constructed is the enemy” (p.2). What Young appears to have failed to realize is that whatever the contribution of biology and however wrong the social constructionists’ reasoning, ‘intelligence’ (IQ), ‘race’ and ‘gender’ are nonetheless constructs.

intelligence, race and gender as constructs

There’s no doubt that biological factors contribute to what we call intelligence, race and gender. Some congenital medical conditions result in low intelligence, people with ancestry in different parts of the world have different physical and physiological characteristics, women are anatomically different to men, and so on.

The concepts ‘intelligence’, ‘race’ and ‘gender’ entail biological characteristics (ability to carry our particular tasks, physical features, anatomical differences), but that doesn’t mean ‘intelligence’, ‘race’ or ‘gender’ map directly on to discrete biological entities.  Although the biological characteristics are real things in the natural world, it doesn’t follow that the concepts ‘intelligence’, ‘race’ and ‘gender’ must be real things in the natural world. As Gilbert Ryle would have pointed out, intelligence, race and gender are different kinds of things to the brains, skin colour and sexual characteristics we associate with them.

The biological characteristics mean we can operationalize those constructs in biological terms for research purposes. A researcher could decide that, for the purposes of their study, intelligence consists of the ability to perform particular tasks, measured using a particular test. A particular racial grouping could be operationalized in terms of particular physical characteristics. Gender, likewise.

It doesn’t follow that intelligence, race or gender have a biological existence independent of the concept of intelligence, race or gender. In marked contrast to brains, skin or genitals.

I think Toby is right that some more vociferous opponents to the claims about intelligence have framed the debate entirely in terms of social constructs and in doing so have completely discounted biological factors. But that’s not true of all who have questioned the claims about intelligence, race or gender.

The existence of brains, skin or genitals are rarely disputed.  They are physical entities and there’s general agreement about their characteristics. But intelligence, race and gender have been the subject of controversy more or less since they came into being because they are constructs. The question looming over all of them is ‘what do you mean by….?’

what do you mean by…?

As the psychologist Edwin Boring pointed out way back in the 1920s, intelligence is what[ever] intelligence tests measure.   Somebody, somewhere makes a decision about what a particular intelligence test measures. Intelligence tests undoubtedly measure something. Whether it’s intelligence or not depends on what you think intelligence is.

Race is controversial because the characteristics that are supposed to be typical of different racial groups are, because of the way genetic expression works, on a multi-dimensional continuum.  Even if the features considered to characterise a particular racial group are very clearly defined, it’s often difficult to decide whether or not an individual belongs to that group.

As for gender… The ‘social constructionists’ so disparage by Young make an important distinction between someone’s sex (reproductive anatomy and secondary sexual characteristics) and their gender – their social role based on their sex. The distinction is a helpful one, but two terms are often, unhelpfully, used interchangeably.

A further complication is that biology, also unhelpfully, doesn’t adhere to a neat binary male/female distribution of physical sexual characteristics. One estimate§ puts the frequency of intersex characteristics as high as 1.7% of the population.

The difficulty in determining what constitutes intelligence, race or gender calls into question the validity of all correlations found between intelligence and any demographic group. That’s because someone has to decide what constitutes intelligence and what constitutes the demographic group; the validity of intelligence as a construct has been questioned ever since Spearman came up with the idea of g.

you say this, I say that

Young’s argument appears to be essentially this: Science shows that shared human characteristics and individual differences are to large extent biologically determined.  And that anti-hereditarian opposition to that finding originates in the ‘fanatical egalitarianism’ of the hard left (p.6). According to Young, the egalitarianism the hard left want can be brought about by a totalitarian dictatorship.

Interestingly, in his opening comments Young dismisses the fanatical egalitarianism embraced by the far-right (also enforced via a totalitarian dictatorship), as ‘toxic baggage’ that could be discarded. And complains “It’s not much fun to be branded a ‘Nazi’ or ‘white supremacist’ on Twitter or anywhere else” (p.1).

Totalitarian regimes of the hard left, far-right and various other political and religious persuasions, inflicted catastrophic damage on huge numbers of people during the 20th century and look set to continue doing so in the 21st. To justify their actions, some regimes used the idea that characteristics are inherited. Others have used ideology. None have taken much notice of what science has to say.

Toby has taken note of the science but has managed to fundamentally misunderstand both it and social constructionism. He’s lumped together anyone else who’s misunderstood the science, objected to spurious scientific claims, been upset by unwise off-the-cuff remarks, with left-wing ideologues.   And has used his misunderstanding to launch an attack on the hard left who he equates with Stalinists.

His argument is essentially constructed in opposition to the narrative of people he disagrees with, whether they are a ‘neo-Marxist intersectionality cult’, ‘Social Justice Warriors’, ‘Liberal Creationists’, ‘anti-hereditarians’ or vote Democrat (p.7).

If the social constructionists think intelligence, race and gender are social constructs, Young doesn’t consider the possibility they might actually be no more than social constructs, despite scientists arguing over their construct validity for decades. If sceptics get upset about scientists making questionable claims, Young assumes the scientists must be right. If any group he disagrees with marginalises the role of biological factors in individual differences, Young marginalises the role of environmental factors. If all the parties Young disagrees with fight like ferrets in a sack about the differences between their views, Young lumps them all together as if they form a homogeneous group.

That doesn’t tell us that Young is wrong and the social constructionists/neo-Marxist intersectionalists/Social Justice Warriors/Liberal Creationists/anti-hereditarians are right. What it does tell us is that misunderstandings of science can be used to justify anything.


*Constance Holden wrote for the news section of Science for 40 years.

§Blackless et al (2000). How sexually dimorphic are we?

can’t help it, root causes and strict discipline: part 3

It’s clear from responses to the previous two posts that some further explanation is required of how the Root Cause approach to behavioural problems works. People have raised issues such as:

  • Some of the children in my class are refugees from a war zone; I don’t know how to tackle the root causes of their behaviour. Other agencies don’t seem to know either.
  • I don’t have time to teach all the children in my class individually, never mind sort out their behaviour issues.
  • How do you find out what the root causes are anyway?   Children will lie and blame anything but themselves.

All behaviour has causes, ranging from an involuntary response to physiology or the environment, through to a deliberate, carefully planned, long-term strategy. All unwanted behaviour in schools has causes too.

the environment

Unwanted behaviour often emerges if the school isn’t sufficiently explicit about its expectations. Rules such as walking in single file in corridors, no talking at certain times, are health and safety related. They reduce the risk of accidents and allow teachers to be heard. Other rules (e.g. do what teachers tell you, hand in your homework on time) facilitate learning.

The Strict Discipline model uses reward and punishment to ensure children comply with the school’s behavioural expectations. But having an explicit behavioural framework reinforced by rewards and sanctions doesn’t mean all children will keep the rules. Nor that all children are able to keep the rules. And sometimes the behavioural framework itself can cause problems.

One school I encountered experienced ongoing ‘challenging’ playground behaviour. On the wall by the door from the Y3 cloakroom to the playground was a small card bearing 13 rules for playground behaviour. Expecting 7 year-olds to memorise 13 rules seemed a bit unrealistic, and any child who stopped to read them would create a bottleneck likely to result in somebody falling over or getting their head bashed as the door was shoved open. I won’t even start on the problems caused by the coat pegs and lunchtime arrangements.

But what can schools do if a child is persistently not adhering to an explicit, carefully thought through behavioural framework, and rewards and sanctions are having no effect? My suggestion was to investigate the root causes of the behaviour.

the child

Most of us are familiar with the Root Cause model in some form or another. We know from personal experience that the causes of behaviour aren’t always obvious. We are aware (thanks to Freud) that the causes can sometimes be deep-rooted. Teachers will be aware of the cycle of deprivation theory that’s widely misinterpreted (and sometimes presented) as the Can’t Help It model. If you’ve never undertaken a root cause analysis, it’s easy to assume the causes of problematic behaviour will be nebulous and difficult to identify. That a child’s unwanted behaviour will turn out to be rooted in a dysfunctional family dynamic, or the community’s cultural expectations, or whatever. That’s often not so, even for the most apparently challenging behaviour.

For example, a pupil with a diagnosis of autism and complex specific learning difficulties attending a residential school (so yes, the school had the capacity and expertise to tackle difficult behavioural issues) began exhibiting extreme distress and ‘school refusal’. Some careful probing with the student revealed the source of the distress not to be some obscure aspect of his ‘autism’, but anxiety about being asked to do things he couldn’t do, in three particular lessons. The kid was given an opt-out card for those lessons. If it all got too much, he could show the card to the teacher and go to alternative provision. The card was never used; knowing he had an escape route was enough to allow him to cope.

The school could have explored in more detail why these particular lessons were an issue, but in this instance they didn’t need to; the problematic behaviour was avoided by a pretty simple solution. I’m sure some of the Strict Discipline adherents will at this point say that if a ‘get out of jail free’ card was available everyone would want one, but this was an approach the school used frequently and that’s not what they found. It became a kind of badge of honour to have the card but manage not to use it.

children with special educational needs or disabilities (SEND)

Old Andrew complained that the Can’t Help It model made SEND an excuse for poor behaviour. It might, but in my experience, some teachers don’t know enough about SEND to make that judgement call.

Teachers in mainstream schools have always been expected to teach at least 98% of the child population; only very small percentage of children have attended special schools. But initial teacher training (ITT) has generally focused only on the 70% of children in the middle ability range. Not surprisingly, children with specific learning difficulties or disabilities have often been problematic for mainstream schools. I’ve advocated making SEND training an integral part of ITT.  Teachers have raised objections:

  • SEND training isn’t necessary. Direct instruction and explicit rules work.
  • How can teachers be expected to provide individual tuition to each child?
  • How can teachers be expected to learn about all those different conditions?

Direct instruction and explicit rules work      Direct instruction and explicit rules can be very effective. Whether the same direct instruction and explicit rules are effective for all children is another matter. Advocates of direct instruction and explicit rules also have a tendency to question the policy of educational inclusion, and to complain about objections to exclusion. Although their complaints might be valid, there’s a fine line between ‘wanting to get on with teaching and avoid disruption for children who want to learn’, and making problem children somebody else’s problem.

How can teachers be expected to provide individual tuition to each child? They used to be expected to do this, before the education system became standardised and performance-driven. Basically, if you are teaching a very varied child population, you can have high performance if you shuffle off the more challenging pupils elsewhere. Or you can have well-educated pupils who might still not meet a narrow performance measure.  You can’t have properly differentiated tuition and high performance based on a narrow measure.

How can teachers be expected to understand all those different conditions?   They don’t need to. Whatever a child’s diagnosis, for children with SEN in mainstream schools, teachers need to know about a handful of challenges (parents are usually a good source of information too – note the ‘usually’):

  • Visual processing – does the child screw up their eyes or complain of headaches? Do they persistently misread letters/numbers or find it difficult to find a visual target?

Make appropriate modifications to material. (One child I taught couldn’t see letters or numbers in their right visual field. Shifting everything to the left was effective). Avoid classroom clutter. Get their visual functioning checked; most local authorities have an educational sensory impairment service.

  • Auditory processing – does the child ‘zone out’ when you’re talking to them, or lose track of what they are saying to you? Do they confuse particular phonemes? Do they put their hands over their ears?

Speak slowly and clearly. Give them time to respond. Get some Jolly Phonics materials for visual/kinaesthetic reinforcement (and no, I’m not talking about Learning Styles). Keep the classroom quiet. Get their auditory processing checked; speech & language therapists can help.

  • Attention/executive function – Are they easily distracted? Is it difficult to get them to switch attention between topics? Or both? Do they find it hard to remember instructions?

Sit the kid at the side/back of the room. Give verbal and/or visual cues to signal the need to switch topic. Back up verbal instructions with written ones.

  • Motor control – is the child clumsy? A chair-rocker? Poor handwriting?

Do lots of physical activities that don’t involve fine motor control. Lots of exercise involving balance and using both sides of the body simultaneously. Get an occupational therapist to advise.

  • Anxiety and unwanted behaviour – if the child is anxious or behaving in a way that’s causing problems, there is very likely to be a reason for it.

Win the child’s trust. Get them to talk – sometimes it’s best to start with what they’re interested in rather than confronting the problem head on. Find out what’s going on and find ways to fix problems together. Compromise is powerful.  Sometimes all that’s required is knowing that a teacher is really on their side.

Some teachers will argue that they can’t implement any of these suggestions because they don’t have time or can’t get access to external support services. Or that the problems are intractable and outside their control. Those things might be true, but they don’t negate the Root Cause model’s effectiveness. They do indicate that public sector services have a long way to go.




can’t help it, root causes and strict discipline: part 2

The second of two posts analysing Old Andrew’s view of the behaviour of children with special educational needs.

special educational needs

In the Can’t Help It model that Old Andrew satirises in Charlie and the Inclusive Chocolate Factory, special educational needs (SEN) are conflated with disability. The child is seen as “ill with ADHD” or “on the autistic spectrum”. And we’ve all seen discussions about whether children ‘really have SEN’. According to one newspaper a 2010 Ofsted report claimed that “many of these pupils did not actually suffer from any physical, emotional or educational problems”.

The SEND Code of Practice defines special educational needs in terms of the “facilities of a kind generally provided for others of the same age in mainstream schools or mainstream post-16 institutions” (p.14). In other words, the definition of SEN is a piece of string. If the facilities generally provided are brilliant, there will be hardly any children with SEN. If they are generally inadequate, there will be many children with SEN.

special educational needs and disability

Another post referred to by Old Andrew is The Blameless Part 3: the Afflicted.   He again pillories Can’t Help It as assuming “if a child is behaving badly in a lesson they must secretly be unable to do the work, and that the most likely reason a child might be unable to keep up with their peers is some form of disability or illness”.

Andrew asks why “a child unable to do their school work would misbehave rather than simply say they couldn’t do it”, completely overlooking communication difficulties ranging from children physically not being able to put the words together if under stress, to feeling intense apprehension about the consequences of drawing the problem to the teacher’s attention in public, such as jeers from peers or the teacher saying ‘you can do it you’re just not trying’ (I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard that statement masquerading as ‘high expectations’).

The second charge Andrew levels at Can’t Help It is the assumption that “medical or psychological conditions directly cause involuntary incidents of poor behaviour.” Leaving aside the question of who decides what constitutes poor behaviour, Andrew draws attention to the circular reasoning that Can’t Help It entails. If a medical or psychological condition is defined in terms of behaviour, then the behaviour must be explained in terms of a medical or psychological condition.

That’s a fair criticism, but it doesn’t mean there are no medical or psychological conditions involved. Old Andrew goes on to question the existence of ‘proprioception disorder’, linking it, bizarrely, to a Ship of Fools definition of purgatory. Impaired proprioception is well established scientifically. A plausible mechanism is the variation in function of the different kinds of sensory receptor in the skin and muscles. (The best description of it I’ve found is in the late great Donna Williams’ book Nobody Nowhere.) Whether Andrew has heard of ‘proprioception disorder’ or whether or not it’s formally listed as a medical disorder, is irrelevant to whether or not variations in proprioceptive function are causal factors in children’s behaviour.

It’s the Can’t Help It model that has led, in Andrew’s opinion, to a “Special Needs racket”. I’d call it a mess rather than a racket, but a mess it certainly is.  And it’s not just about children who don’t have ‘genuine disabilities’.  Mainstream teachers are expected to teach 98% of the school population but most are trained to teach only the 70% in the middle range. If teachers don’t have the relevant expertise to teach the 15% or so of children whose performance, for whatever reason, is likely to be more than one standard deviation below average, it’s hardly surprising that they label those children as having special educational needs and expect local authorities to step in with additional resources.

children as moral agents

Old Andrew questions an assumption he thinks is implicit in Can’t Help It – that the child is ‘naturally good’. I think he’s right to question it, not because children are or are not naturally good, but because morality is only tangentially relevant to what kinds of behaviours teachers want or don’t want in their classrooms, and completely irrelevant to whether or not children can meet those expectations. The good/bad behavioural continuum is essentially a moral one, and thus open to debate.

The third post Old Andrew linked to was Needs.  He suggests that framing behaviour in terms of needs “absolves people of responsibility for their actions”. He points out the difficulty of determining what children’s needs are and how to meet them, and goes on to consider an ‘extreme example’ of a school discovering that many of its pupils were starving. If the school feels it has a moral duty to the children, it would feed all those who were starving. But if the school attributes bad behaviour to going without food, it would “cease looking for the most famished child to feed first and start feeding the worst behaved… We would be rewarding the worst behaved child with something they wanted”.  Andrew concludes “Imagine how more contentious other types of “help” (like extra attention, free holidays, help in lessons or immunity from punishment) might be”… Whenever we view human beings as something other than moral agents we are likely to end up advocating solutions which are in conflict with both our consciences and our knowledge of the human mind”.

Andrew has raised some valid points about how we figure out what needs are, how they are best met, and about the Can’t Help It model. But his alternative is to frame behaviour in terms of a simplistic behaviourist model (reward and punishment), and human beings as moral agents with consciences and minds. In short, his critique, and the alternative he posits, are based on his beliefs. He’s entitled to hold those beliefs, of course, but they don’t necessarily form an adequate framework for determining what behaviour schools want, what behaviour is most beneficial to most children in the short and long term, or how schools should best address the behaviour of children with special educational needs (as legally defined).

Andrew seems to view children as moral agents who can control their behaviour regardless of what disability they might have. The moral agents aspect of his model rests on unsupported assumptions about human nature. The behavioural control aspect is called into question by research indicating that the frontal lobes of the brain don’t fully mature until the early 20s.  Moral agency and behavioural control in young people is a controversial topic.


The Can’t Help It model is obviously flawed and the Strict Discipline model rests on questionable assumptions. The Root Cause model, in contrast, recognises that preventing unwanted behaviours might require an analysis of the behaviour expected of children, and the reasons children aren’t meeting those expectations. It’s an evidence-based model. It doesn’t rest on beliefs or absolve children of all responsibility. It can identify environmental factors that contribute to unwanted behaviour, and can provide children with strategies that increase their ability to control what they do.  To me, it looks like the only model that’s likely to be effective.

can’t help it, root causes and strict discipline: part 1

This week Old Andrew, renowned education blogger, has drawn attention to some of his old posts about children with special educational needs. He identifies two conceptual models that focus on children’s behaviour – and overlooks a third.  In this post, I describe the models and why teachers might adopt one and not the others.

the model muddle

In Charlie and the Inclusive Chocolate Factory Andrew satirises a particular conceptual model of children’s behaviour. I’ll call  the model Can’t Help It. This view is that children identified as having special educational needs, or those from deprived backgrounds, are not responsible for behaving in ways that are unwanted by those around them. The Can’t Help It model is the one that claims criminals abused or neglected in childhood can’t be held responsible for breaking the law. I don’t doubt it’s a view held by some people, and I can understand the temptation to satirise it. It’s flawed because almost everyone could identify some adverse experience in childhood that explains why they behave in ways that distress others.

But satirising Can’t Help It is risky, because of its similarity to another conceptual model, which I’ll call Root Cause. The two models have similar surface features, but a fundamentally different deep structure. The Root Cause model claims that all behaviour has causes and if we want to prevent unwanted behaviour we have to address the causes. If we don’t do that the behaviour is likely to persist. (Ignoring causal factors is a frequent cause of re-offending; prisoners are often released into a community that prompted them to engage in criminal behaviour in the first place).

I’ve never encountered Can’t Help It as such. What I have encountered frequently is something of a hybrid between Can’t Help It and Root Cause. People are aware that there might be causes for unwanted behaviour and that those causes should be addressed, but  have no idea what the causes are or how to deal with them.

If the TES Forum is anything to go by, this is often true for teachers in mainstream schools who’ve had no special educational needs or disability training. They don’t want to apply the usual a reward/punishment approach in the case of a kid with a diagnosis of ADHD or autism, because they know it might be ineffective or make the problem worse. But they know next to nothing about ADHD or autism, so haven’t a clue how to proceed. In some cases the school appears to have just left the teacher to get on with it and is hoping for the best. Teachers in this position can’t apply Root Cause because they don’t know how, so tend to default to either Can’t Help It or to a third model I’ll call Strict Discipline.

Strict Discipline has a long history, dating back at least to Old Testament times. It also has a long history of backfiring. Children have a strong sense of fairness and will resent punishments they see as unfair or disproportionate. The resentment can last a lifetime. A Strict Discipline approach needs a robust evidential framework it’s going to be effective in both the short and long term. In Charlie and the Inclusive Chocolate Factory, Old Andrew rightly eschews Can’t Help It and appears to opt for Strict Discipline, bypassing Root Cause entirely; he describes Charlie, despite “eating nothing but bread and cabbage for six months” as “polite and well-behaved”.

Good behaviour

This evaluation of Charlie’s behaviour begs the question of what constitutes ‘well-behaved’. Teachers who identify as ‘traditional’ often refer to ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behaviour as if both are self-evident. Inevitably, behaviour isn’t that simple. ‘Traditional’ teachers appear to see behaviour on a linear continuum. At one pole is strict adherence to social norms – whatever they are deemed to be in a particular environment. At the other is complete license, assumed to result in extreme anti-social activities.

The flaws of this behaviour continuum are immediately apparent because it’s based on assumptions. The norms set by a particular teacher or school are assumed to be reasonable and attainable by all children. Those are big assumptions, as shown by the variation in different schools’ expectations and in the behaviour of children.

Even very young children are aware of different behavioural expectations. What’s allowed in Miss Green’s class isn’t tolerated in Mr Brown’s. They can do things in their grandparents’ home that their parents wouldn’t like, and that would be completely unacceptable in school. That doesn’t make Mr Brown’s expectations or those of the school right, and everybody else wrong. We all have to behave in different ways in different environments. Most children intuitively pick up and respond appropriately to these variations in expectations, but some don’t. By definition autistic children struggle to make sense of what they are expected to do, and children with attentional deficits get distracted from the task in hand.

It doesn’t follow that children with autism or ADHD should be permitted to behave how they like, nor have all their ‘whims’ catered for. Nor does it follow that every child should be expected to behave in exactly the same way. What it does mean is that if a child exhibits behaviour that’s problematic for others, the causes of the problematic behaviour should be identified and appropriate action taken. In some cases, schools and teachers do not appear to know what that appropriate action should be.

In the next post I’ll look at the flaws in the Strict Discipline model in relation to children with special educational needs.

cognitive science: the wrong end of the stick

A few years ago, some teachers began advocating the application of findings from cognitive science to education. There seemed to be something not quite right about what they were advocating but I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was. Their focus was on the limitations of working memory and differences between experts and novices. Nothing wrong with that per se, but working memory and expertise aren’t isolated matters.

Cognitive science is now a vast field; encompassing sensory processing, perception, cognition, memory, learning, and aspects of neuroscience. A decent textbook would provide an overview, but decent textbooks didn’t appear to have been consulted much. Key researchers (e.g. Baddeley & Hitch, Alloway, Gathercole), fields of research (e.g. limitations of long-term memory, neurology), and long-standing contentious issues (e.g. nature vs nurture) rarely got a mention even when highly relevant.

At first I assumed the significant absences were due to the size of the field to be explored, but as time went by that seemed less and less likely.  There was an increasing occurrence of teacher-B’s-understanding-of-teacher-A’s-understanding-of-Daniel-Willingham’s-simplified-model-of-working-memory, with some teachers getting hold of the wrong end of some of the sticks. I couldn’t understand why, given the emphasis on expertise, teachers didn’t seem to be looking further.

The penny dropped last week when I read an interview with John Sweller, the originator of Cognitive Load Theory (CLT), by Ollie Lovell, a maths teacher in Melbourne. Ollie has helpfully divided the interview into topics in a transcript on his website. The interview clarifies several aspects of cognitive load theory. In this post, I comment on some points that came up in the interview, and explain the dropped penny.

1.  worked examples

The interview begins with the 1982 experiment that led to Sweller’s discovery of the worked example effect. Ollie refers to the ‘political environment of education at the time’ being ‘heavily in favour of problem solving’. John thinks that however he’d presented the worked example effect, he’d be pessimistic about the response because ‘the entire research environment in those days was absolutely committed to problem solving’.

The implication that the education system had rejected worked examples was puzzling. During my education (1960s and 70s) you couldn’t move for worked examples. They permeated training courses I attended in the 80s, my children’s education in the 90s and noughties, and still pop up frequently in reviews and reports. True, they’re not always described as a ‘worked example’ but instead might be a ‘for instance’ or ‘here’s an example’ or ‘imagine…’. So where weren’t they? I’d be grateful for any pointers.

2 & 3. goal-free effect

Essentially students told to ‘find out as much as you can’ about a problem, performed better than those given specific instructions about what to find out. But only in relation to problems with a small number of possible solutions – in this case physics problems. The effect wasn’t found for problems with a large number of possible solutions.   But you wouldn’t know that if you’d only read teachers criticising ‘discovery learning’.

4. biologically primary and secondary skills

What’s determined by biology or by the environment has been a hugely contentious issue in cognitive science for decades. Basically, we don’t yet know the extent to which learning is biologically or environmentally determined.  But the contentiousness isn’t mentioned in the interview, is marginalised by David Geary the originator of the biologically primary and secondary concept, and John appears to simply assume Geary’s theory is correct, presumably because it’s plausible.

John says it’s ‘absurd’ to provide someone with explicit instruction about what to do with their tongue, lips or breath when learning English. Ollie points out that’s exactly what he had to do when he learned Chinese. John claims that language acquisition by immersion is biologically primary for children but not for adults. This flies in the face of everything we know about language acquisition.

Adults can and do become very fluent in languages acquired via immersion, just as children do. Explicit instruction can speed up the process and help with problematic speech sounds, but can’t make adults speak like a native. That’s because the adults have to override very robust neural pathways laid down in childhood in response to the sounds the children hear day-in, day-out (e.g. Patricia Kuhl’s ‘Cracking the speech code‘). The evidence suggests that differences between adult and child language acquisition are a frequency of exposure issue, not a type-of-skill issue. As Ollie says: “It’s funny isn’t it?  How it can switch category. It’s just amazing.”  Quite.

5. motivation

The discussion was summed up in John’s comment: “I don’t think you can turn Cognitive Load Theory into a theory of motivation which in no way suggests that you can’t use a theory of motivation and use it in conjunction with cognitive load theory.

 6. expertise reversal effect

John says: “As expertise goes up, the advantage of worked examples go down, and as expertise continues to go up, eventually the relative effectiveness of worked examples and problems reverses and the problems are more helpful than worked examples”.

7. measures of cognitive load

John: “I routinely use self-report and I use self-report because it’s sensitive”. Other measures – secondary tasks, physiological markers – are problematic.

8. collective working memory effect

John: “In problem solving, you may need information and the only place you can get it from is somebody else.” He doesn’t think you can teach somebody to act collaboratively because he thinks social interaction is biologically primary knowledge. See 4 above.

9. The final section of the interview highlighted, for me, two features that emerge from much of the discourse about applying cognitive science to education:

  • The importance of the biological mechanisms and the weaknesses of analogy.
  • The frame of reference used in the discourse.

biological mechanisms

In the final part of the interview John asks an important question: Is the capacity of working memory fixed? He says: “If you’ve been using your working memory, especially in a particular area, heavily for a while, after a while, and you would have experienced this yourself, your working memory keeps getting narrower and narrower and narrower and after a while it just about disappears.”

An explanation for the apparent ‘narrowing’ of working memory is habituation, where the response of neurons to a particular stimulus diminishes if the stimulus is repeated. The best account I’ve read of the biological mechanisms in working memory is in a 2004 paper by Wagner, Bunge & Badre.  If I’ve understood their findings correctly, signals representing sensory information coming into the prefrontal area of the brain are maintained for a few seconds until they degrade or are overridden by further incoming information. This is exactly what was predicted by Baddeley & Hitch’s phonological loop and visual-spatial sketchpad. (Wagner, Bunge and Badre’s findings also indicate there might be more components to working memory than Baddley & Hitch’s model suggests.)

John was using a figure of speech, but I fear it will only be a matter of time before teachers start referring to the ‘narrowing’ of working memory. This illustrates why it’s important to be aware of the biological mechanisms that underpin cognitive functions. Working memory is determined by the behaviour of neurons, not by the behaviour of analogous computer components.

frame of reference

John and Ollie were talking about cognitive load theory in education, so that’s what the interview focussed on, obviously.  But every focus has a context, and John and Ollie’s frame of reference seemed rather narrow. Ollie opens by talking about ‘the political environment of education at the time [1982]’ being ‘heavily in favour of problem solving’. I don’t think he actually means the ‘political environment of education at the time’ as such. Similarly John comments ‘the entire research environment in those days was absolutely committed to problem solving’. I don’t think he means ‘the entire research environment’ as such either.

John also observes: “It’s only been very recently that people started taking notice of Cognitive Load Theory. For decades I put papers out there and it was like putting them into outer-space, you know, they disappeared into the ether!” I first heard about Cognitive Load Theory in the late 80s, soon after Sweller first proposed it, via a colleague working in artificial intelligence. I had no idea, until recently, that Sweller was an educational psychologist. People have been taking notice of CLT, but maybe not in education.

Then there’s the biologically primary/secondary model. It’s ironic how little it refers to biology. We know a fair amount about the biological mechanisms involved in learning, and I’ve not yet seen any evidence suggesting two distinct mechanisms. The model appears to be based on the surface features of how people appear to learn, not on the deep structure of how learning happens.

Lastly, the example of language acquisition. The differences between adults and children learning languages can be explained by frequency of exposure and how neurons work; there’s no need to introduce a speculative evolutionary model.

Not only is cognitive load theory the focus of the interview, it also appears to be its frame of reference; political issues and knowledge domains other than education don’t get much of a look in.

the penny that dropped

Ever since I first heard about teachers applying cognitive science to education, I’ve been puzzled by their focus on the limitations of working memory and the characteristics of experts and novices. It suddenly dawned on me, reading Ollie’s interview with John, that what the teachers are actually applying isn’t so much cognitive science, as cognitive load theory. CLT, the limitations of working memory and the characteristics of experts and novices are important, but constitute only a small area of cognitive science. But you wouldn’t know that from this interview or most of the teachers advocating the application of cognitive science.  There’s a real risk, if CLT isn’t set in context, of teachers getting hold of the wrong stick entirely.


Geary, D. (2007).  Educating the evolved mind: Conceptual foundations for an evolutionary educational psychology, in Educating the evolved mind: Conceptual foundations for an evolutionary educational psychology, JS Carlson & JR Levin (Eds). Information Age Publishing.

Kuhl, P. (2004). Early language acquisition: Cracking the speech code. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 5, 831-843.

Wagner, A.D., Bunge, S.A. & Badre, D. (2004). Cognitive control, semantic memory          and priming: Contributions from prefrontal cortex. In M. S. Gazzaniga (Ed.) The Cognitive Neurosciences (3rd edn.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.











a philosophy conference for teachers

Yesterday was a bright, balmy autumn day. I spent it at Thinking about teaching: a philosophy conference for teachers at the University of Birmingham. Around 50 attendees, and the content Tweeted on #EdPhilBrum. And I met in person no fewer than five people I’ve previously met only on Twitter @PATSTONE55, @ded6ajd, @sputniksteve, @DSGhataura and @Rosalindphys.  In this post, a (very) brief summary of the presentations (missed the last one by Joris Vleighe) and my personal impressions.

Geert Biesta: Teachers, teaching and the beautiful risk of education

The language we use to describe education is important. English doesn’t have words to accurately denote what Biesta considers to be key purposes of education, but German does:

  • Ausbildung (‘qualification’) – cultivation, knowledge & skills
  • Bildung (‘socialisation’) – developing identity in relation to tradition
  • Erziehung (‘subjectivisation’) – grown-up engagement with the world.

These facets are distinct but overlap; focussing on purposes individually can result in:

  • obsession with qualifications
  • strong socialisation – conformity
  • freedom as license.

Education has an interruptive quality that allows the integration of its purposes. The risk of teaching is that the purposes might not be achieved because the student is an active subject, not a ‘pure object’.

Judith Suissa : ‘Seeing like a state?’ Anarchism, philosophy of education and the political imagination

Anarchist tools allow us to question fundamental assumptions about the State, often not questioned by those who do question particular State policies. State education per se is rarely questioned, for example.

Anarchism is often accused of utopianism, but utopianism has different meanings and can serve to ‘relativise the present’.

Andrew Davis:  The very idea of an ‘evidence based’ teaching method. Educational research and the practitioner

One model of ‘evidence based’ teaching is summarised as ‘it works’. But what is the ‘it’? Even a simple approach like ‘sitting in rows’ can involve many variables. ‘It works’ bypasses the need for professional judgement and overlooks distinction between instrumental and relational understanding (Skemp). Children should have relational cognitive maps; new knowledge needs a place.

Regulative rules apply to activities whose existence is independent of the rules e.g. driving on the left-hand side of the road.

Constituitive rules are rules on which the activity depends for its existence e.g the rules of chess. Many educational functions involved constitutive rules and collective intentions.

Joe Wolff:  Fake news and twisted values: political philosophy in the age of social media

Fake news and twisted values can emerge for different reasons.

  • innocent mistakes: out of context citations, misattributed authorship, different criteria in use e.g. life expectancy
  • propaganda: Trojan Horse speeches, manipulation of information
  • peer reviewed literature: errors, replication crisis Difficulties with access and readability

writing for philosophers

Philosophy isn’t my field, but lately I’ve been dabbling in it increasingly often. The main obstacle to accessibility hasn’t been the concepts, but the terminology. I’ve ploughed through a dense argument stopping sometimes several times a sentence to find out what the words refer to, only to discover eventually I’ve been reading about a familiar concept called something else in another domain, but explained in ways that address philosophers’ queries and objections.  I now call these texts writing for philosophers.  An example is Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained. Struggled with the words only to realise I’d already read Antonio Damasio explaining similar ideas but writing for biologists.

Like @PATSTONE55 I was expecting this conference to consist of presentations for philosophers and that I’d struggle to keep up. But it wasn’t and we didn’t.  Instead there were very accessible presentations for teachers. And themes that, as Pat also found, were very familiar, or at least had been familiar some decades ago.  It felt like a rather glitchy time warp flipping between the 1970s and the present. In the present context, the themes felt distinctly subversive.  Three key themes emerged for me.

context is everything

Everything is related; education is a multi-purpose process, underpinned by political assumptions, it’s relational, and evaluating evidence isn’t straightforward. The disjointed educational policy ‘ideas’ that have dominated the education landscape for several decades are usually a failure waiting to happen. They waste huge amounts of time and money, have contributed to teacher shortages and have caused needless problems for students. In systems theory they’d be catchily termed sub-systems optimisation at the expense of systems optimization, often shortened to suboptimization. Urie Bronfenbrenner wasn’t mentioned yesterday, but he addressed the issue of the social ecology in the 70s in his ecological systems theory of child development.

implicit assumptions are difficult to detect

It’s easy to focus on one purpose of education and ignore others, easy to assume the status quo can’t be questioned, easy to what’s there and difficult to spot what’s missing, and all too easy to forget what things look like from a child’s perspective.

We all make implicit assumptions, but because they are implicit and assumptions, it’s fiendishly difficult for us to make our own assumptions explicit. Sometimes a fresh pair of eyes is enough, sometimes a colleague from another discipline can help, but sometimes we need a radical, unorthodox perspective like anarchism.

space and time are essential for reflection

Most people can learn facts (I use the term loosely) pretty quickly, but putting the facts in context might require developing or changing a schema and you can’t do that while you’re busy learning other facts. It’s no accident that thinkers from Aristotle to Darwin did their best thinking whilst walking. Neurons need downtime to make and strengthen connections. There’s a limit to how much time children (or adults) can spend actively ‘learning’. Too much time can be counterproductive.

Yesterday’s conference offered a superb space for reflection. Thought-provoking and challenging ideas, motivated and open-minded participants, an excellent venue and some of the best conference food ever – the gluten-free/vegetarian/vegan platters were amazing. Thanks to the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain for organising it.  Couldn’t have been more timely.