A few years ago, mystified by the way my son’s school was tackling his reading difficulties, I joined the TES forum and discovered I’d missed The Reading Wars. Well, not quite. They began before I started school and show no sign of ending any time soon. But I’d been blissfully unaware that they’d been raging around me.
On one side in the Reading Wars are advocates of a ‘whole language’ approach to learning to read – focusing on reading strategies and meaning – and on the other are advocates of teaching reading using phonics. Phonics advocates see their approach as evidence-based, and frequently refer to the whole language approach (using ‘mixed methods’) as based on ideology.
Most members of my family learned to read successfully using mixed methods. I was trained to teach reading using mixed methods and all the children I taught learned to read. My son, taught using synthetic phonics, struggled with reading and eventually figured it out for himself using whole word recognition. Hence my initial scepticism about SP. I’ve since changed my mind, having discovered that my son’s SP programme wasn’t properly implemented and after learning more about how the process of reading works. If I’d relied only on the scientific evidence cited as supporting SP, I wouldn’t have been convinced. Although it clearly supports SP as an approach to decoding, the impact on literacy in general isn’t so clear-cut.
I’ve also found it difficult to pin down the ideology purported to be at the root of whole language approaches. An ideology is a set of abstract ideas or values based on beliefs rather than on evidence, but the reasons given for the use of mixed methods when I was learning to read and when I was being trained to teach reading were pragmatic ones. In both instances, mixed methods were advocated explicitly because (analytic) phonics alone hadn’t been effective for some children, and children had been observed to use several different strategies during reading acquisition.
The nearest I’ve got to identifying an ideology are the ideas that language frames and informs people’s worldviews and that social and economic power plays a significant part in determining who teaches what to whom. The implication is that teachers, schools, school boards, local authorities or government don’t have a right to impose on children the way they construct their knowledge. To me, the whole language position looks more like a theoretical framework than an ideology, even if the theory is debatable.
the Teaching Wars
The Reading Wars appear to be but a series of battles in a much bigger war over what’s often referred to as traditional vs progressive teaching methods. The new traditionalists frequently characterise the Teaching Wars along the same lines as SP proponents characterise the Reading Wars; claiming that traditional methods are supported by scientific evidence, but ideology is the driving force behind progressive methods. Even a cursory examination of this claim suggests it’s a caricature of the situation rather than an accurate summary.
The progressives’ ideology Rousseau is often cited as the originator of progressive education and indeed, progressive methods sometimes resemble the approach he advocated. However, many key figures in progressive education such as Herbert Spencer, John Dewey and Jean Piaget derived their methods from what was then state-of-the-art scientific theory and empirical observation, not from 18th century Romanticism.
The traditionalists’ scientific evidence The evidence cited by the new traditionalists appears to consist of a handful of findings from cognitive psychology and information science. They’re important findings, they should form part of teacher training and they might have transformed the practice of some teachers, but teaching and learning involves more than cognition. Children’s developing brains and bodies, their emotional and social background, the social, economic and political factors shaping the expectations on teachers and students in schools, and the philosophical frameworks of everybody involved suggest that evidence from many other scientific fields should also be informing educational theory, and that it might be risky to apply a few findings out of context.
I can understand the new traditionalists’ frustration. One has to ask why education theory hasn’t kept up to date with research in many fields that are directly relevant to teaching, learning, child development and the structure of the education system itself. However, dissatisfaction with progressive methods appears to originate, not so much with the methods themselves, as with the content of the curriculum and with progressive methods being taken to extremes.
keeping it simple
The limited capacity of working memory is the feature of human cognitive architecture that underpins Kirschner, Sweller and Clark’s argument in favour of direct instruction. One outcome of that limitation is a human tendency to oversimplify information by focusing on the prototypical features of phenomena – a tendency that often leads to inaccurate stereotyping. Kirschner, Sweller and Clark present their hypothesis in terms of a dispute between two ‘sides’ one advocating minimal guidance and the other a full explanation of concepts, procedures and strategies (p.75).
Although it’s appropriate in experimental work to use extreme examples of these approaches in order to test a hypothesis, the authors themselves point out that in a classroom setting most teachers using progressive methods provide students with considerable guidance anyway (p.79). Their conclusion that the most effective way to teach novices is through “direct, strong, instructional guidance” might be valid, but in respect of the oversimplified way they frame the dispute, they appear to have fallen victim to the very limitations of human cognitive architecture to which they draw our attention.
The presentation of the Teaching Wars in this polarised manner goes some way to explaining why direct instruction seems like such a big deal for the new traditionalists. Direct instruction shouldn’t be confused with Direct Instruction (capitalised) – the scripted teaching used in Engelmann & Becker’s DISTAR programme – although a recent BBC Radio 4 programme suggests that might be exactly what’s happening in some quarters.
The Radio 4 programme How do children learn history? is presented by Adam Smith, a senior lecturer in history at University College London, who has blogged about the programme here. He’s carefully non-committal about the methods he describes – it is the BBC after all.
A frequent complaint about the way the current national curriculum approaches history is what’s included, what’s excluded, what’s emphasised and what’s not. At home, we’ve had to do some work on timelines because although both my children have been required to put themselves into the shoes of various characters throughout history (an exercise my son has grown to loathe), neither of them knew how the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Vikings or Victorians related to each other – a pretty basic historical concept. But those are curriculum issues, rather than methods issues. As well as providing a background to the history curriculum debate, the broadcast featured two lessons that used different pedagogical approaches.
During an ‘inquiry’ lesson on Vikings, presented as a good example of current practice, groups of children were asked to gather information about different aspects of Viking life. A ‘direct instruction’ lesson on Greek religious beliefs, by contrast, involved the teacher reading from a textbook whilst the children followed the text in their own books with their finger, then discussed the text and answered comprehension questions on it. The highlight of the lesson appeared to be the inclusion of an exclamation mark in the text.
It’s possible that the way the programme was edited oversimplified the lesson on Greek religious beliefs, or that the children in the Viking lesson were older than those in the Greek lesson and better able to cope with ‘inquiry’, but there are clearly some possible pitfalls awaiting those who learn by relying on the content of a single textbook. The first is that whoever publishes the textbook controls the knowledge – that’s a powerful position to be in. The second is that you don’t need much training to be able to read from a textbook or lead a discussion about what’s in it – that has implications for who is going to be teaching our children. The third is how children will learn to question what they’re told. I’m not trying to undermine discipline in the classroom, just pointing out that textbooks can be, and sometimes are, wrong. The sooner children learn that authority lies in evidence rather than in authority figures, the better. Lastly, as a primary school pupil I would have found following a teacher reading from a textbook tedious in the extreme. As a secondary school pupil it was a teacher reading from a textbook for twenty minutes that clinched my decision to drop history as soon possible. I don’t think I’d be alone in that.
who are the new traditionalists?
The Greek religions lesson was part of a project funded by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), a charity developed by the Sutton Trust and the Impetus Trust in 2011 with a grant from the DfE. The EEF’s remit is to fund research into interventions aimed at improving the attainment of pupils receiving free school meals. The intervention featured in How do children learn history? is being implemented in Future Academies in central London. I think the project might be the one outlined here, although this one is evaluating the use of Hirsch’s Core Knowledge framework in literacy, rather than in history, which might explain the focus on extracting meaning from the text.
My first impression of the traditionalists was that they were a group of teachers disillusioned by the ineffectiveness of the pedagogical methods they were trained to use, who’d stumbled across some principles of cognitive science they’d found invaluable and were understandably keen to publicise them. Several of the teachers are Teach First graduates and work in academies or free schools – not surprising if they want freedom to innovate. They also want to see pedagogical methods rigorously evaluated, and the most effective ones implemented in schools. But those teachers aren’t the only parties involved.
Religious groups have welcomed the opportunities to open faith schools and develop their own curricula – a venture supported by previous and current governments despite past complications resulting from significant numbers of schools in England being run by churches and the current investigation into the alleged operation Trojan Horse in Birmingham.
Future, the sponsors of Future Academies and the Curriculum Centre, was founded by John and Caroline Nash, a former private equity specialist and stockbroker respectively. Both are reported to have made significant donations to the Conservative party. John Nash was appointed Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Schools in January 2013. The Nashes are co-chairs of the board of governors of Pimlico Academy and Caroline Nash is chair of The Curriculum Centre. All four trustees of the Future group are from the finance industry.
Many well-established independent schools, notably residential schools for children with special educational needs and disabilities, are now controlled by finance companies. This isn’t modern philanthropy in action; the profits made from selling on the school chains, the magnitude of the fees charged to local authorities, and the fact that the schools are described as an ‘investment’, suggests that another motivation is at work.
A number of publishers of textbooks got some free product placement in a recent speech by Elizabeth Truss, currently parliamentary Under Secretary of state for Education and Childcare.
Educational reform might have teachers in the vanguard, but there appear to be some powerful bodies with religious, political and financial interests who might want to ensure they benefit from the outcomes, and have a say in what those outcomes are. The new traditionalist teachers might indeed be on to something with their focus on direct instruction, but if direct instruction boils down in practice to teachers using scripted texts or reading from textbooks, they will find plenty of other players willing to jump on the bandwagon and cash in on this simplistic and risky approach to educating the country’s most vulnerable children. Oversimplification can lead to unwanted complications.