seven myths about education: traditional subjects

In Seven Myths about Education, Daisy Christodoulou refers to the importance of ‘subjects’ and clearly doesn’t think much of cross-curricular projects. In the chapter on myth 5 ‘we should teach transferable skills’ she cites Daniel Willingham pointing out that the human brain isn’t like a calculator that can perform the same operations on any data. Willingham must be referring to higher-level information-processing because Anderson’s model of cognition makes it clear that at lower levels the brain is like a calculator and does perform essentially the same operations on any data; that’s Anderson’s point. Willingham’s point is that skills and knowledge are interdependent; you can’t acquire skills in the absence of knowledge and skills are often subject-specific and depend on the type of knowledge involved.

Daisy dislikes cross-curricular projects because students are unlikely to have the requisite prior knowledge from across several knowledge domains, are often expected to behave like experts when they are novices and get distracted by peripheral tasks. I would suggest those problems are indicators of poor project design rather than problems with cross-curricular work per se. Instead, Daisy would prefer teachers to stick to traditional subject areas.

traditional subjects

Daisy refers several times to traditional subjects, traditional bodies of knowledge and traditional education. The clearest explanation of what she means is on pp.117-119, when discussing the breadth and depth of the curriculum;

For many of the theorists we looked at, subject disciplines were themselves artificial inventions designed to enforce Victorian middle-class values … They may well be human inventions, but they are very useful … because they provide a practical way of teaching … important concepts …. The sentence in English, the place value in mathematics, energy in physics; in each case subjects provide a useful framework for teaching the concept.”

It’s worth considering how the subject disciplines the theorists complained about came into being. At the end of the 18th century, a well-educated, well-read person could have just about kept abreast of most advances in human knowledge. By the end of the 19th century that would have been impossible. The exponential growth of knowledge made increasing specialisation necessary; the names of many specialist occupations including the term ‘scientist’ were coined the 19th century. By the end of the 20th century, knowledge domains/subjects existed that hadn’t even been thought of 200 years earlier.

It makes sense for academic researchers to specialise and for secondary schools to employ teachers who are subject specialists because it’s essential to have good knowledge of a subject if you’re researching it or teaching it. The subject areas taught in secondary schools have been determined largely by the prior knowledge universities require from undergraduates. That determines A level content, which in turn determines GCSE content, which in turn determines what’s taught at earlier stages in school. That model also makes sense; if universities don’t know what’s essential in a knowledge domain, no one does.

The problem for schools is that they can’t teach everything, so someone has to decide on the subjects and subject content that’s included in the curriculum. The critics Daisy cites question traditional subject areas on the grounds that they reflect the interests of a small group of people with high social prestige (p.110-111).

criteria for the curriculum

Daisy doesn’t buy the idea that subject areas represent the interests of a social elite, but she does suggest an alternative criterion for curriculum content. Essentially, this is frequency of citation. In relation to the breadth of the curriculum, she adopts the principle espoused by ED Hirsch (and Daniel Willingham, Robert Peal and Toby Young), of what writers of “broadsheet newspapers and intelligent books” (p.116) assume their readers will know. The writers in question are exemplified by those contributing to the “Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and so on” (Willingham p.47). Toby Young suggests a UK equivalent – “Times leader writers and heavyweight political commentators” (Young p.34). Although this criterion for the curriculum is better than nothing, its limitations are obvious. The curriculum would be determined by what authors, editors and publishers knew about or thought was important. If there were subject areas crucial to human life that they didn’t know about, ignored or deliberately avoided, the next generation would be sunk.

When it comes to the depth of the curriculum, Daisy quotes Willingham; “cognitive science leads to the rather obvious conclusion that students must learn the concepts that come up again and again – the unifying ideas of each discipline” (Willingham p.48). My guess is that Willingham describes the ‘unifying ideas of each discipline’ as ‘concepts that come up again and again’ to avoid going into unnecessary detail about the deep structure of knowledge domains; he makes a clear distinction between the criteria for the breadth and depth of the curriculum in his book. But his choice of wording, if taken out of context, could give the impression that the unifying ideas of each discipline are the concepts that come up again and again in “broadsheet newspapers and intelligent books”.

One problem with the unifying ideas of each discipline is that they don’t always come up again and again. They certainly encompass “the sentence in English, place value in mathematics, energy in physics”, but sometimes the unifying ideas involve deep structure and schemata taken for granted by experts but not often made explicit, particularly to school students.

Daisy points out, rightly, that neither ‘powerful knowledge’ nor ‘high culture’ are owned by a particular social class or culture (p.118). But she apparently fails to see that using cultural references as a criterion for what’s taught in schools could still result in the content of the curriculum being determined by a small, powerful social group; exactly what the traditional subject critics and Daisy herself complain about, though they are referring to different groups.

dead white males

This drawback is illustrated by Willingham’s observation that using the cultural references criterion means “we may still be distressed that much of what writers assume their readers know seems to be touchstones of the culture of dead white males” (p.116). Toby Young turns them into ‘dead white, European males’ (Young p.34, my emphasis).

What advocates of the cultural references model for the curriculum appear to have overlooked is that the dead white males’ domination of cultural references is a direct result of the long period during which European nations colonised the rest of the world. This colonisation (or ‘trade’ depending on your perspective) resulted in Europe becoming wealthy enough to fund many white males (and some females) engaged in the pursuit of knowledge or in creating works of art. What also tends to be forgotten is that the foundation for their knowledge originated with males (and females) who were non-whites and non-Europeans living long before the Renaissance. The dead white guys would have had an even better foundation for their work if people of various ethnic origins hadn’t managed to destroy the library at Alexandria (and a renowned female scholar). The cognitive bias that edits out non-European and non-male contributions to knowledge is also evident in the US and UK versions of the Core Knowledge sequence.

Core Knowledge sequence

Determining the content of the curriculum by the use of cultural references has some coherence, but cultural references don’t necessarily reflect the deep structure of knowledge. Daisy comments favourably on ED Hirsch’s Core Knowledge sequence (p.121). She observes that “The history curriculum is designed to be coherent and cumulative… pupils start in first grade studying the first American peoples, they progress up to the present day, which they reach in the eighth grade. World history runs alongside this, beginning with the Ancient Greeks and progressing to industrialism, the French revolution and Latin American independence movements.”

Hirsch’s Core Knowledge sequence might encompass considerably more factual knowledge than the English national curriculum, but the example Daisy cites clearly leaves some questions unanswered. How did the first American peoples get to America and why did they go there? Who lived in Europe (and other continents) before the Ancient Greeks and why are the Ancient Greeks important? Obviously the further back we go, the less reliable evidence there is, but we know enough about early history and pre-history to be able to develop a reasonably reliable overview of what happened. It’s an overview that clearly demonstrates that the natural environment often had a more significant role than human culture in shaping history. And one that shows that ‘dead white males’ are considerably less important than they appear if the curriculum is derived from cultural references originating in the English-speaking world. Similar caveats apply to the UK equivalent of the Core Knowledge sequence published by Civitas, the one that recommends children in year 1 being taught about the Glorious Revolution and the significance of Robert Walpole.

It’s worth noting that few of the advocates of curriculum content derived from cultural references are scientists; Willingham is, but his background is in human cognition, not chemistry, biology, geology or geography. I think there’s a real risk of overlooking the role that geographical features, climate, minerals, plants and animals have played in human history, and of developing a curriculum that’s so Anglo-centric and culturally focused it’s not going to equip students to tackle the very concrete problems the world is currently facing. Ironically, Daisy and others are recommending that students acquire a strongly socially-constructed body of knowledge, rather than a body of knowledge determined by what’s out there in the real world.

knowledge itself

Michael Young, quoted by Daisy, aptly sums up the difference:

Although we cannot deny the sociality of all forms of knowledge, certain forms of knowledge which I find useful to refer to as powerful knowledge and are often equated with ‘knowledge itself’, have properties that are emergent from and not wholly dependent on their social and historical origins.” (p.118)

Most knowledge domains are pretty firmly grounded in the real world, which means that the knowledge itself has a coherent structure reflecting the real world and therefore, as Michael Young points out, it has emergent properties of its own, regardless of how we perceive or construct it.

So what criteria should we use for the curriculum? Generally, academics and specialist teachers have a good grasp of the unifying principles of their field – the ‘knowledge itself’. So their input would be essential. But other groups have an interest in the curriculum; notably the communities who fund and benefit from the education system and those involved on a day-to-day basis – teachers, parents and students. 100% consensus on a criterion is unlikely, but the outcome might not be any worse than the constant tinkering with the curriculum by government over the past three decades.

why subjects?

‘Subjects’ are certainly a convenient way of arranging our knowledge and they do enable a focus on the deep structure of a specific knowledge domain. But the real world, from which we get our knowledge, isn’t divided neatly into subject areas, it’s an interconnected whole. ‘Subjects’ are facets of knowledge about a world that in reality is highly integrated and interconnected. The problem with teaching along traditional subject area lines is that students are very likely to end up with a fragmented view of how the real world functions, and to miss important connections. Any given subject area might be internally coherent, but there’s often no apparent connection between subject areas, so the curriculum as a whole just doesn’t make sense to students. How does history relate to chemistry or RE to geography? It’s difficult to tell while you are being educated along ‘subject’ lines.

Elsewhere I’ve suggested that what might make sense would be a chronological narrative spine for the curriculum. Learning about the Big Bang, the formation of galaxies, elements, minerals, the atmosphere and supercontinents through the origins of life to early human groups, hunter-gatherer migration, agricultural settlement, the development of cities and so on, makes sense of knowledge that would otherwise be fragmented. And it provides a unifying, overarching framework for any knowledge acquired in the future.

Adopting a chronological curriculum would mean an initial focus on sciences and physical geography; the humanities and the arts wouldn’t be relevant until later for obvious reasons. It wouldn’t preclude simultaneously studying languages, mathematics, music or PE of course – I’m not suggesting a chronological curriculum ‘first and only’ – but a chronological framework would make sense of the curriculum as a whole.

It could also bridge the gap between so-called ‘academic’ and ‘vocational’ subjects. In a consumer society, it’s easy to lose sight of the importance of knowledge about food, water, fuel and infrastructure. But someone has to have that knowledge and our survival and quality of life are dependent on how good their knowledge is and how well they apply it. An awareness of how the need for food, water and fuel has driven human history and how technological solutions have been developed to deal with problems might serve to narrow the academic/vocational divide in a way that results in communities having a better collective understanding of how the real world works.

the curriculum in context

I can understand why Daisy is unimpressed by the idea that skills can be learned in the absence of knowledge or that skills are generic and completely transferable across knowledge domains. You can’t get to the skills at the top of Bloom’s taxonomy by bypassing the foundation level – knowledge. Having said that, I think Daisy’s criteria for the curriculum overlook some important points.

First, although I agree that subjects provide a useful framework for teaching concepts, the real world isn’t neatly divided up into subject areas. Teaching as if it is means it’s not only students who are likely to get a fragmented view of the world, but newspaper columnists, authors and policy-makers might too – with potentially disastrous consequences for all of us. It doesn’t follow that students need to be taught skills that allegedly transfer across all subjects, but they do need to know how subject areas fit together.

Second, although we can never eliminate subjectivity from knowledge, we can minimise it. Most knowledge domains reflect the real world accurately enough for us to be able to put them to good, practical use on a day-to-day basis. It doesn’t follow that all knowledge consists of verified facts or that students will grasp the unifying principles of a knowledge domains by learning thousands of facts. Students need to learn about the deep structure of knowledge domains and how the evidence for the facts they encompass has been evaluated.

Lastly, cultural references are an inadequate criterion for determining the breadth of the curriculum. Cultural references form exactly the sort of socially constructed framework that critics of traditional subject areas complain about. Most knowledge domains are firmly grounded in the real world and the knowledge itself, despite its inherent subjectivity, provides a much more valid and reliable criterion for deciding what students should know that what people are writing about. Knowledge about cultural references might enable students to participate in what Michael Oakeshott called the ‘conversation of mankind’, but life doesn’t consist only of a conversation – at whatever level you understand the term. For most people, even in the developed world, life is just as much about survival and quality of life, and in order to optimise our chances of both, we need to know as much as possible about how the world functions, not just what a small group of people are saying about it.

In my next post, hopefully the final one about Seven Myths, I plan to summarise why I think it’s so important to understand what Daisy and those who support her model of educational reform are saying.


Peal, R (2014). Progressively Worse: The Burden of Bad Ideas in British Schools. Civitas.
Willingham, D (2009). Why don’t students like school?. Jossey-Bass.
Young, T (2014). Prisoners of the Blob. Civitas.


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