seven myths about education: finally…

When I first heard about Daisy Christodoulou’s myth-busting book in which she adopts an evidence-based approach to education theory, I assumed that she and I would see things pretty much the same way. It was only when I read reviews (including Daisy’s own summary) that I realised we’d come to rather different conclusions from what looked like the same starting point in cognitive psychology. I’ve been asked several times why, if I have reservations about the current educational orthodoxy, think knowledge is important, don’t have a problem with teachers explaining things and support the use of systematic synthetic phonics, I’m critical of those calling for educational reform rather than those responsible for a system that needs reforming. The reason involves the deep structure of the models, rather than their surface features.

concepts from cognitive psychology

Central to Daisy’s argument is the concept of the limited capacity of working memory. It’s certainly a core concept in cognitive psychology. It explains not only why we can think about only a few things at once, but also why we oversimplify and misunderstand, are irrational, are subject to errors and biases and use quick-and-dirty rules of thumb in our thinking. And it explains why an emphasis on understanding at the expense of factual information is likely to result in students not knowing much and, ironically, not understanding much either.

But what students are supposed to learn is only one of the streams of information that working memory deals with; it simultaneously processes information about students’ internal and external environment. And the limited capacity of working memory is only one of many things that impact on learning; a complex array of environmental factors is also involved. So although you can conceptually isolate the material students are supposed to learn and the limited capacity of working memory, in the classroom neither of them can be isolated from all the other factors involved. And you have to take those other factors into account in order to build a coherent, workable theory of learning.

But Daisy doesn’t introduce only the concept of working memory. She also talks about chunking, schemata and expertise. Daisy implies (although she doesn’t say so explicitly) that schemata are to facts what chunking is to low-level data. That just as students automatically chunk low-level data they encounter repeatedly, so they will automatically form schemata for facts they memorise, and the schemata will reduce cognitive load in the same way that chunking does (p.20). That’s a possibility, because the brain appears to use the same underlying mechanism to represent associations between all types of information – but it’s unlikely. We know that schemata vary considerably between individuals, whereas people chunk information in very similar ways. That’s not surprising if the information being chunked is simple and highly consistent, whereas schemata often involve complex, inconsistent information.

Experimental work involving priming suggests that schemata increase the speed and reliability of access to associated ideas and that would reduce cognitive load, but students would need to have the schemata that experts use explained to them in order to avoid forming schemata of their own that were insufficient or misleading. Daisy doesn’t go into detail about deep structure or schemata, which I think is an oversight, because the schemata students use to organise facts are crucial to their understanding of how the facts relate to each other.

migrating models

Daisy and teachers taking a similar perspective frequently refer approvingly to ‘traditional’ approaches to education. It’s been difficult to figure out exactly what they mean. Daisy focuses on direct instruction and memorising facts, Old Andrew’s definition is a bit broader and Robert Peal’s appears to include cultural artefacts like smart uniforms and school songs. What they appear to have in common is a concept of education derived from the behaviourist model of learning that dominated psychology in the inter-war years. In education it focused on what was being learned; there was little consideration of the broader context involving the purpose of education, power structures, socioeconomic factors, the causes of learning difficulties etc.

Daisy and other would-be reformers appear to be trying to update the behaviourist model of education with concepts that, ironically, emerged from cognitive psychology not long after it switched focus from behaviourist model of learning to a computational one; the point at which the field was first described as ‘cognitive’. The concepts the educational reformers focus on fit the behaviourist model well because they are strongly mechanistic and largely context-free. The examples that crop up frequently in the psychology research Daisy cites usually involve maths, physics and chess problems. These types of problems were chosen deliberately by artificial intelligence researchers because they were relatively simple and clearly bounded; the idea was that once the basic mechanism of learning had been figured out, the principles could then be extended to more complex, less well-defined problems.

Researchers later learned a good deal about complex, less well-defined problems, but Daisy doesn’t refer to that research. Nor do any of the other proponents of educational reform. What more recent research has shown is that complex, less well-defined knowledge is organised by the brain in a different way to simple, consistent information. So in cognitive psychology the computational model of cognition has been complemented by a constructivist one, but it’s a different constructivist model to the social constructivism that underpins current education theory. The computational model never quite made it across to education, but early constructivist ideas did – in the form of Piaget’s work. At that point, education theory appears to have grown legs and wandered off in a different direction to cognitive psychology. I agree with Daisy that education theorists need to pay attention to findings from cognitive psychology, but they need to pay attention to what’s been discovered in the last half century not just to the computational research that superseded behaviourism.

why criticise the reformers?

So why am I critical of the reformers, but not of the educational orthodoxy? When my children started school, they, and I, were sometimes perplexed by the approaches to learning they encountered. Conversations with teachers painted a picture of educational theory that consisted of a hotch-potch of valid concepts, recent tradition, consequences of policy decisions and ideas that appeared to have come from nowhere like Brain Gym and Learning Styles. The only unifying feature I could find was a social constructivist approach and even on that opinions seemed to vary. It was difficult to tell what the educational orthodoxy was, or even if there was one at all. It’s difficult to critique a model that might not be a model. So I perked up when I heard about teachers challenging the orthodoxy using the findings from scientific research and calling for an evidence-based approach to education.

My optimism was short-lived. Although the teachers talked about evidence from cognitive psychology and randomised controlled trials, the model of learning they were proposing appeared as patchy, incomplete and incoherent as the model they were criticising – it was just different. So here are my main reservations about the educational reformers’ ideas:

1. If mainstream education theorists aren’t aware of working memory, chunking, schemata and expertise, that suggests there’s a bigger problem than just their ignorance of these particular concepts. It suggests that they might not be paying enough attention to developments in some or all of the knowledge domains their own theory relies on. Knowing about working memory, chunking, schemata and expertise isn’t going to resolve that problem.

2. If teachers don’t know about working memory, chunking, schemata and expertise, that suggests there’s a bigger problem than just their ignorance of these particular concepts. It suggests that teacher training isn’t providing teachers with the knowledge they need. To some extent this would be an outcome of weaknesses in educational theory, but I get the impression that trainee teachers aren’t expected or encouraged to challenge what they’re taught. Several teachers who’ve recently discovered cognitive psychology have appeared rather miffed that they hadn’t been told about it. They were all Teach First graduates; I don’t know if that’s significant.

3. A handful of concepts from cognitive psychology doesn’t constitute a robust enough foundation for developing a pedagogical approach or designing a curriculum. Daisy essentially reiterates what Daniel Willingham has to say about the breadth and depth of the curriculum in Why Don’t Students Like School?. He’s a cognitive psychologist and well-placed to show how models of cognition could inform education theory. But his book isn’t about the deep structure of theory, it’s about applying some principles from cognitive psychology in the classroom in response to specific questions from teachers. He explores ideas about pedagogy and the curriculum, but that’s as far as it goes. Trying to develop a model of pedagogy and design a curriculum based on a handful of principles presented in a format like this is like trying to devise courses of treatment and design a health service based on the information gleaned from a GP’s problem page in a popular magazine. But I might be being too charitable; Willingham is a trustee of the Core Knowledge Foundation, after all.

4. Limited knowledge Rightly, the reforming teachers expect students to acquire extensive factual knowledge and emphasise the differences between experts and novices. But Daisy’s knowledge of cognitive psychology appears to be limited to a handful of principles discovered over thirty years ago. She, Robert Peal and Toby Young all quote Daniel Willingham on research in cognitive psychology during the last thirty years, but none of them, Willingham included, tell us what it is. If they did, it would show that the principles they refer to don’t scale up when it comes to complex knowledge. Nor do most of the teachers writing about educational reform appear to have much teaching experience. That doesn’t mean they are wrong, but it does call into question the extent of their expertise relating to education.

Some of those supporting Daisy’s view have told me they are aware that they don’t know much about cognitive psychology, but have argued that they have to start somewhere and it’s important that teachers are made aware of concepts like the limits of working memory. That’s fine if that’s all they are doing, but it’s not. Redesigning pedagogy and the curriculum on the basis of a handful of facts makes sense if you think that what’s important is facts and that the brain will automatically organise those facts into a coherent schema. The problem is of course that that rarely happens in the absence of an overview of all the relevant facts and how they fit together. Cognitive psychology, like all other knowledge domains, has incomplete knowledge but it’s not incomplete in the same way as the reforming teachers’ knowledge. This is classic Sorcerer’s Apprentice territory; a little knowledge, misapplied, can do a lot of damage.

5. Evaluating evidence Then there’s the way evidence is handled. Evidence-based knowledge domains have different ways of evaluating evidence, but they all evaluate it. That means weighing up the pros and cons, comparing evidence for and against competing hypotheses and so on. Evaluating evidence does not mean presenting only the evidence that supports whatever view you want to get across. That might be a way of making your case more persuasive, but is of no use to anyone who wants to know about the reliability of your hypothesis or your evidence. There might be a lot of evidence telling you your hypothesis is right – but a lot more telling you it’s wrong. But Daisy, Robert Peal and Toby Young all present supporting evidence only. They make no attempt to test the hypotheses they’re proposing or the evidence cited, and much of the evidence is from secondary sources – with all due respect to Daniel Willingham, just because he says something doesn’t mean that’s all there is to say on the matter.

cargo-cult science

I suggested to a couple of the teachers who supported Daisy’s model that ironically it resembled Feynman’s famous cargo-cult analogy (p. 97). They pointed out that the islanders were using replicas of equipment, whereas the concepts from cognitive psychology were the real deal. I suggest that even the Americans had left their equipment on the airfield and the islanders knew how to use it, that wouldn’t have resulted in planes bringing in cargo – because there were other factors involved.

My initial response to reading Seven Myths about Education was one of frustration that despite making some good points about the educational orthodoxy and cognitive psychology, Daisy appeared to have got hold of the wrong ends of several sticks. This rapidly changed to concern that a handful of misunderstood concepts is being used as ‘evidence’ to support changes in national education policy.

In Michael Gove’s recent speech at the Education Reform Summit, he refers to the “solidly grounded research into how children actually learn of leading academics such as ED Hirsch or Daniel T Willingham”. Daniel Willingham has published peer-reviewed work, mainly on procedural learning, but I could find none by ED Hirsch. It would be interesting to know what the previous Secretary of State for Education’s criteria for ‘solidly grounded research’ and ‘leading academic’ were. To me the educational reform movement doesn’t look like an evidence-based discipline but bears all the hallmarks of an ideological system looking for evidence that affirms its core beliefs. This is no way to develop public policy. Government should know better.

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25 thoughts on “seven myths about education: finally…

  1. “What they appear to have in common is a concept of education derived from the behaviourist model of learning that dominated psychology in the inter-war years. In education it focused on what was being learned; there was little consideration of the broader context involving the purpose of education, power structures, socioeconomic factors, the causes of learning difficulties etc.”

    Straw man.

  2. And unfortunately, that straw man appears to be your only new argument. The rest is your usual tactic of implying people don’t know enough (much of this based on circumstantial ad hominems or guesswork) and have missed out important details or new idea, but not actually providing any indication of what they have actually got wrong.

    • My ‘tactic of implying people don’t know enough’ is based, not on ‘circumstantial ad hominems or guesswork’, but on what the people involved have or haven’t said. If Daisy has a good overview of cognitive psychology, why does she not use that to inform her model of learning, rather than a few principles that psychologists know don’t scale up from simple examples to complex ones – what the past 30 years research in cognitive psychology has been about.

      And other teachers supporting her model for learning have told me explicitly that ‘this is just the beginning, we know we don’t know very much, we want to learn’. One had given a public presentation on memory but hadn’t heard of Alan Baddeley. You don’t seem to realise what that implies about the level of understanding involved.

      There is nothing *wrong* with the concepts of the limited capacity of working memory, chunking or schemata, but assuming those concepts are sufficient to design a pedagogical approach or re-shape a curriculum is like assuming that if you mix butter, sugar and eggs you’ll get a cake. Nothing *wrong* with those ingredients, but if you put them in the oven you’d probably be disappointed at the outcome.

      What those propagating educational reform have got wrong is that they have taken a few principles out of context from one field of research and are applying them, out of context, to another. You might not be aware of the importance of context but most of the rest of the world is. And I’m not using context in some airy-fairy way, but to denote the large number of very specific factors that impact on learning, and which working memory processes, other than the type of problems that early AI researchers focused on involving maths, physics and chess.

      • “My ‘tactic of implying people don’t know enough’ is based, not on ‘circumstantial ad hominems or guesswork’, but on what the people involved have or haven’t said. If Daisy has a good overview of cognitive psychology, why does she not use that to inform her model of learning, rather than a few principles that psychologists know don’t scale up from simple examples to complex ones – what the past 30 years research in cognitive psychology has been about.”

        This is still the same argument: “They haven’t mentioned something I consider important, even though I cannot show that it has any consequences for their argument.”

        Don’t you get it? Honest people don’t care if somebody has missed something on your personal checklist; they only care whether the overall argument is sound or not? The aim is to arrive at the truth, not to assert their own expertise.

      • OA this isn’t about something *I* consider important, it’s something that’s considered important by cognitive psychology. And I thought I’d made clear the consequences of not mentioning the findings related to higher-level knowledge. Complex less consistent knowledge isn’t organised by the brain in the same way as simple consistent information. You can’t just scale up low level chunking to ‘facts’. That’s what the last 30 years research in cognitive psychology has essentially been about.

        Kids who memorise thousands of facts will certainly know more than kids who don’t memorise any, but they won’t necessarily understand what they have memorised. That’s what Rousseau, Dewey, Friere and Dickens were complaining about, but if you believe that’s what they were saying, it somewhat undermines the case for a pedagogy that assumes that memorising facts per se will enable you to understand them.

        On p.20 of Seven Myths, Daisy jumps from chunking to schemata, with no explanation of how they are related, why people’s individual schemata vary or of the way experts perceive the deep structure of knowledge domains. To me, it looks as if she’s saying chunking and schemata are the same thing. They are not. They might involve the same underlying mechanism of synaptic connections, but they result in very different outcomes, as research over the last 30 years has shown.

        If all teachers ever had to teach was maths, physics and chess, Daisy’s model would probably hold water, but kids are expected to learn things that involve more complex sensory data and are arranged in ways that are often a lot more complex and less clear-cut. That’s where Daisy’s model is likely to fail.

        And that’s before we get on to all the contextual factors involved in learning.

  3. An excellent series of posts with a finale that summarises the situation perfectly in my view.

    Whereas the commenter above appears to believe that you have “implied” people don’t know enough, I believe you have clearly demonstrated that this is the case.

    I think you have clearly and logically explained/highlighted many of the flaws and fallacies in the Tradstremist narrative in it’s cariety of forms, and this has been much appreciated.

    I also believe (although I will probably be accused of appeal to popularity) that the vast majority of practicing teachers up and down the land will identify with you reflections.

    It must have taken a while to put these posts together, and the effort is appreciated by many.

  4. This demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of behaviourist psychology and misattributes Daisy’s arguments, which ar win fact primarily cognitive. Firstly, the gap between behaviourist approaches and traditional schooling is vast. The writer conflates them. Secondly, the education profession and teacher training providers in particular have fundamentally misrepresented behavioural approaches for decades, attributing poor ethics and superficial goals to a discipline that has a very clear set of ethics which are, ironically, much more evident in outcomes for students than cognitive ones. Thirdly, the negative connotations of this straw man are being associated with Daisy and those who agree with her, but they have no validity.

    • Thanks for commenting.

      I’d be interested to know the basis for your claim about my ‘profound misunderstanding of behaviourist psychology’, since I said very little about it in my post. I concede that not all education in the past was modelled explicitly along behaviourist lines, but behaviourist methods were widely used in teaching and learning for centuries before behaviourism was formalised as a conceptual framework. One could argue that it was the long-standing use of those principles that prompted interest in the behaviourist model in the first place. It was how people initially thought learning happened.

      I’m not disputing the fact that Daisy’s arguments are primarily cognitive; I’m hazarding a guess at what model of learning she’s referring to when she talks about ‘traditional’… anything. If it was a ‘cognitive’ one it would look more like Piaget’s – he introduced the concept of schema into education after all – but he doesn’t get a mention and isn’t thought highly of by other people who refer approvingly to ‘traditional’ methods.

      1. It’s difficult to tell if ‘the gap between behaviourist approaches and traditional schooling is vast’ if it’s not clear what’s meant by ‘traditional’. Old Andrew is the only proponent of traditional approaches who’s attempted to define it, that I’m aware of. I’d be interested to know your definition.

      2. It wouldn’t surprise me if behaviourism has been misrepresented in education, but its ethics aren’t the point at issue here. The point is about how learning works. Psychology didn’t move on from behaviourism because of its ethics, but because it was an inadequate model for learning.

      3. I am not trying to tar Daisy with the brush of the popular and I agree, often inaccurate view of the ethics of behaviourism. What I am trying to do is understand her model of learning. It clearly involves ‘traditional’ elements but I’m not at all clear what she’s referring to. If she’s suggesting that ‘traditional’ approaches are supported by cognitive principles, where does the last 30 years’ research into higher-level knowledge fit in? I can’t see how it does.

      • “What I am trying to do is understand her model of learning.”

        At this point it all becomes rather surreal.

        “If she’s suggesting that ‘traditional’ approaches are supported by cognitive principles, where does the last 30 years’ research into higher-level knowledge fit in? I can’t see how it does.”

        We know this is your view. We just don’t know what she is meant to have left out that has any consequences for her argument. You have spent post after post failing to spell this out at ever greater length, and then, when it looked like you had no choice but to identify this clearly, you resorted to the behaviourism straw man.

      • I’ve pointed out that the way schemata link complex, less consistent information isn’t the same as the way simple, consistent information is chunked. I’ve referred to individuals using different schemata to organise the same information. I’ve mentioned cognitive errors, biases and heuristics (rules of thumb). I’ve talked about the importance of contextual factors in learning.

        Information about all these things is readily accessible. The schema is a well-established concept in education, so I assumed teachers would see the implications of variations in schemata immediately. The importance of context in learning is well-established. Daniel Kahneman’s work on cognitive errors, biases and heuristics is well-known. All of this information is easily accessible by Googling it – it isn’t as if it’s all hidden away in obscure academic journals.

        Frankly, I think that’s the fundamental problem with Daisy’s model; not enough homework has been done.

  5. Enjoyed this – makes lots of sense and Hirsch/Willingham evidence for a core knowledge curriculum ideology does seem a tad flimsy…

    I have always been astounded that Baddeley and Gathercole never come up when discussing Working Memory – they*are* working memory as far as I’m concerned. Never any discussion about phonological loop, episodic and semantic memory etc

    Lots of discussion around teachers doing more research but maybe the Department of Education need a better Research unit which is not politically motivated or swayed by romantic ideals of a bygone era or to be fair, me who thinks students need to enjoy their learning, be engaged and get out more doing practical activities.

    Thank you for this – I spot no straw man just possibly the new ‘brain gym’ by gift of the US.

      • I’m not ‘accusing’ anyone of behaviourism. But it’s clear that Daisy things that cognitive psychology supports elements of traditional education. I’m trying to figure out what she means by ‘traditional’. Behaviourism is the nearest match I could think of. Happy to be corrected if I’m wrong.

  6. “And I thought I’d made clear the consequences of not mentioning the findings related to higher-level knowledge. Complex less consistent knowledge isn’t organised by the brain in the same way as simple consistent information. You can’t just scale up low level chunking to ‘facts’.”

    This still just seems to be a claim about what is missing rather than what is wrong. What findings exactly and what precisely do they show to be wrong in Daisy’s argument? We have pages of waffle and I still don’t know what psychologists have actually shown that you think makes any concrete point Daisy has made wrong. In fact the stuff about different forms of knowledge you posted seemed to have very little basis in psychology at all.

    “I’m trying to figure out what she means by ‘traditional’. Behaviourism is the nearest match I could think of. Happy to be corrected if I’m wrong.”

    It is obviously wrong to look to see which thing that you feel comfortable arguing against (or dismissing) somebody most closely matches, rather than answering what they actually said.

    • Google:

      schema theory
      personal construct theory
      cognitive biases
      heuristics
      neuroconstructivism

      This is some of what’s missing from Daisy’s model. Students will not process complex information logically or rationally to form the schemata that teachers would like them to form simply by memorising facts. Their mental organisation of the facts will be all over the place and teachers will need to figure out what they’ve got wrong before they can put it right. Daisy is quite right that students won’t understand properly without facts, but she doesn’t explain how the process of understanding actually works, or to take into account how might go wrong. She appears to see expertise as consisting of thousands of facts, rather than consisting of those facts and the ways in which experts mentally organise them.

      So if Daisy isn’t referring to a behaviourist model of education when she talks about traditional education/subjects etc, what model/s is she referring to? The teachers teaching in traditional schools must have had a mental model of how children learned.

      • I didn’t ask what was “missing”, I asked what was wrong. And unless you are expecting anyone to accept the straw man that Daisy thinks students should only memorise facts with no particular organisation, we are still no closer to establishing that.

        As for the “mental model” red herring, Daisy has outlined (and you have refused to accept) what the justification from psychology for traditional education is. There doesn’t appear to be anything to add to that, other than for the purpose of creating straw man arguments.

      • What’s missing is what’s wrong. Cognitive psychology has spent the last 30 years trying to find out why chunking didn’t scale up to complex knowledge.

        If Daisy doesn’t think students will form appropriate schemata if they memorise facts, why does she give the impression they will? Her comments about experts and chess positions reinforce that view.

        I don’t know what Daisy means by traditional education. She doesn’t explain it. What am I supposed to conclude?

  7. “I’ve pointed out that the way schemata link complex, less consistent information isn’t the same as the way simple, consistent information is chunked. I’ve referred to …”

    This *still* appears to be a list of what you think she’s missed out, not what she’s got wrong.

    This is getting bizarre.

      • We’re not talking about something arcane here; the concepts that suggest Daisy’s model won’t scale up have all featured in popular literature.

        If teachers want to write about working memory or talk about how they’ve applied principles from cognitive psychology – or anything else – to their teaching, that’s great. But if they are challenging educational theory, particularly if they are promoting their stance as ‘evidence-based’ it’s incumbent on them to evaluate the evidence relevant to their hypothesis. And that’s all the relevant evidence, not just some of it, and it means evaluating it, not just citing the bits that support it. The onus of testing the hypothesis is on whoever’s proposing it, not on everyone else.

        This is even more important if we’re talking about evidence used by government to support public policy. Are you seriously suggesting it’s OK for a government minister to propose whatever s/he likes, but for the responsibility for testing the evidence to lie with anyone who objects?

  8. “If Daisy doesn’t think students will form appropriate schemata if they memorise facts, why does she give the impression they will? Her comments about experts and chess positions reinforce that view.”

    I would have said that her use of chess examples showed the exact opposite. She never claims that chess expertise is about memorising a list of unconnected facts, only that it involves knowledge.

  9. “We’re not talking about something arcane here; the concepts that suggest Daisy’s model won’t scale up have all featured in popular literature.”

    Then it should be easy for you to identify what in the cognitive psychology Daisy references won’t scale up, and precisely what evidence there is that shows this to be the case, instead of just listing things she didn’t refer to without identifying how they prove the cognitive science she references to be wrong. As it is we just have endless references to things she didn’t mention that don’t actually seem to be relevant to her argument.

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