seven myths about education – what’s missing?

Old Andrew has raised a number of objections to my critique of Seven Myths about Education. In his most recent comment on my previous (and I had hoped, last) post about it, he says I should be able to easily identify evidence that shows ‘what in the cognitive psychology Daisy references won’t scale up’.

One response would be to provide a list of references showing step-by-step the problems that artificial intelligence researchers ran into. That would take me hours, if not days, because I would have to trawl through references I haven’t looked at for over 20 years. Most of them are not online anyway because of their age, which means Old Andrew would be unlikely to be able to access them.

What is more readily accessible is information about concepts that have emerged from those problems, for example; personal construct theory, schema theory, heuristics and biases, bounded rationality and indexing, connectionist models of cognition and neuroconstructivism. Unfortunately, none of the researchers says “incidentally, this means that students might not develop the right schemata when they commit facts to long-term memory” or “the implications for a curriculum derived from cultural references are obvious”, because they are researching cognition not education, and probably wouldn’t have anticipated anyone suggesting either of these ideas. Whether Old Andrew sees the relevance of these emergent issues or not is secondary, in my view, to how Daisy handles evidence in her book.

concepts and evidence

In the last section of her chapter on Myth 1, Daisy takes us through the concepts of the limited capacity of working memory and chunking. These are well-established, well-tested hypotheses and she cites evidence to support them.

concepts but no evidence

Daisy also appears to introduce two hypotheses of her own. The first is that “we can summon up the information from long-term memory to working memory without imposing a cognitive load” (p.19). The second is that the characteristics of chunking can be extrapolated to all facts, regardless of how complex or inconsistent they might be; “So, when we commit facts to long-term memory they actually become part of our thinking apparatus and have the ability to expand one of the biggest limitations of human cognition” (p.20). The evidence she cites to support this extrapolation is Anderson’s paper – the one about simple, consistent information. I couldn’t find any other evidence cited to support either idea.

evidence but no concepts

Daisy does cite Frantz’s paper about Simon’s work on intuition. Two important concepts of Simon’s that Daisy doesn’t mention but Frantz does, are bounded rationality and the idea of indexing.

Bounded rationality refers to the fact that people can only make sense of the information they have. This supports Daisy’s premise that knowledge is necessary for understanding. But it also supports Freire’s complaint about which facts were being presented to Brazilian schoolchildren. Bounded rationality is also relevant to the idea of the breadth of a curriculum being determined by the frequency of cultural references. Simon used it to challenge economic and political theory.

Simon also pointed out that not only do experts have access to more information than novices do, they can access it more quickly because of their mental cross-indexing, ie the schemata that link relevant information. Rapid speed of access reduces cognitive load, but it doesn’t eliminate it. Chess experts can determine the best next move within seconds, but for most other experts, their knowledge is considerably more complex and less well-defined. A surgeon or an engineer is likely to take days rather than seconds to decide on the best procedure or design to resolve a difficult problem. That implies that quite a heavy cognitive load is involved.

Daisy does mention schemata but doesn’t go into detail about how they are formed or how they influence thinking and understanding. She refers to deep learning in passing but doesn’t tackle the issue Willingham raises about students’ problems with deep structure.

burden of proof

Old Andrew appears to be suggesting that I should assume that Daisy’s assertions are valid unless I can produce evidence to refute them. The burden of proof for a theory usually rests with the person making the claims, for obvious reasons. Daisy cites evidence to support some of her claims, but not all of them. She doesn’t evaluate that evidence by considering its reliability or validity or by taking into account contradictory evidence.

If Daisy had written a book about her musings on cognitive psychology and education, or about how findings from cognitive psychology had helped her teaching, I wouldn’t be writing this. But that’s not what she’s done. She’s used theory from one knowledge domain to challenge theory in another. That can be a very fruitful strategy; the application of game theory and ecological systems theory has transformed several fields. But it’s not helpful simply to take a few concepts out of context from one domain and apply them out of context to another domain.

The reason is that theoretical concepts aren’t free-standing; they are embedded in a conceptual framework. If you’re challenging theory with theory, you need to take a long hard look at both knowledge domains first to get an idea of where particular concepts fit in. You can’t just say “I’m going to apply the concepts of chunking and the limited capacity of working memory to education, but I shan’t bother with schema theory or bounded rationality or heuristics and biases because I don’t think they’re relevant.” Well, you can say that, but it’s not a helpful way to approach problems with learning, because all of these concepts are integral to human cognition. Students don’t leave some of them in the cloakroom when they come into class.

On top of that, the model for pedagogy and the curriculum that Daisy supports is currently influencing international educational policy. If the DfE considers the way evidence has been presented by Hirsch, Willingham and presumably Daisy, as ‘rigorous’, as Michael Gove clearly did, then we’re in trouble.

For Old Andrew’s benefit, I’ve listed some references. Most of them are about things that Daisy doesn’t mention. That’s the point.


Axelrod, R (1973). Schema Theory: An Information Processing Model of Perception and Cognition, The American Political Science Review, 67, 1248-1266.
Elman, J et al (1998). Rethinking Innateness: Connectionist Perspective on Development. MIT Press.
Frantz, R (2003). Herbert Simon. Artificial intelligence as a framework for understanding intuition, Journal of Economic Psychology, 24, 265–277.
Kahneman, D., Slovic, P & Tversky A (1982). Judgement under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases. Cambridge University Press.
Karmiloff-Smith, A (2009). Nativism Versus Neuroconstructivism: Rethinking the Study of
Developmental Disorders. Developmental Psychology, 45, 56–63.
Kelly, GA (1955). The Psychology of Personal Constructs. New York: Norton.

8 thoughts on “seven myths about education – what’s missing?

    • What has perplexed me most about Daisy’s book is her model of cognition. Some parts are clear – chunking, the limitations of working memory. Other parts – the cognitive load imposed by material retrieved from LTM, the role of schemata – are pretty hazy. Some – the cultural references curriculum – are worrying. I don’t know what criteria Daisy uses to decide which concepts from cognitive psychology are relevant to education and which aren’t.

      Despite some lengthy conversations with teachers who support Daisy’s thesis, I haven’t been able to get any answers to my questions about her model other than ‘‘this is just the beginning, we’re still learning”. But I’ve repeatedly been asked “What’s wrong with what Daisy says?” You, OA, have asked me repeatedly for evidence that what Daisy has left out is important.

      I can’t point you to a paper that describes an experiment demonstrating the importance of schema theory to learning, or to one that concludes that complex, inconsistent information isn’t chunked in the same way as simple, consistent information, although there might be such papers out there. That’s like me complaining that someone has omitted molecular bonding from their application of chemistry to cookery and you asking some evidence that demonstrates that molecular bonding is important. I’d be hard put to find it because it’s such a well-established concept that no one sees the need to spell it out any more. Schema theory has been an integral part of psychology since the 1930s, and one of the reasons psychologists studied cognition in the first place is because people don’t handle complex, inconsistent information logically and rationally. And schema theory found its way into education because despite decades of children learning facts, often many facts, off by heart, they struggled to understand them. I have, however, pointed you to areas of cognitive psychology that demonstrate that these concepts are implicit in theories about learning, and I’ve given you some references. Are you planning to read them?

      Of course Daisy herself might be able to shed light on some of the points she raises – or doesn’t raise. I have tried to engage her in discussion, but without much success. Perhaps I haven’t tried hard enough.

      • The problem is that while you can refer to these things, you seem utterly unable to explain what precisely they do to show Daisy is wrong. You seem far more interested in how much Daisy, or how much I, or how much unidentified other teachers, know about whatever topics you raise, than actually answering this point. I suppose these topics are relevant if one wants to bluff – to be able to say that people should accept your opinion because you are more expert – but it is utterly irrelevant to actually establishing a rational argument against anything Daisy has said.

        And, of course, this is also the reason you are discussing this with me and not with Daisy. I have a deep fascination with bad arguments; most people just ignore them.

      • I have explained precisely. I’ve referred to research. I’ve provided specific references. I have never said people should accept my opinion because I’m more ‘expert’ – all I’ve done is referred to stuff that’s out there and relatively easily accessible for people to check for themselves. Where do you think I got the information from?

        As for ‘establishing an argument against anything Daisy has said’ – rational or otherwise – that’s not what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to understand her model of cognition. Some bits of it aren’t clearly explained and aren’t supported by evidence. I suspect it has some gaps in it, but only because of what she includes and excludes and I don’t know why she’s included or excluded those things. No one, including Daisy, appears to be willing to explain.

        The reason I’m discussing this with you and not Daisy is because she doesn’t seem very keen to engage in discussion. I’ve commented on her blog, asked her a question after a presentation and notified her about my blog posts – as have other people – but a discussion hasn’t resulted. Maybe I need to ask specifically for a discussion. If she doesn’t want to engage, that’s fine, but there’s no need for you to speculate about it.

    • I think she is wrong about several things, but I can’t be sure about that until I know what she means by specific sentences and what her criteria are for skimming over some things and omitting others.

      Just to check, are you saying is that if someone makes an assertion, regardless of whether they have evidence to support it, the quality of the evidence they’ve used to support it, or whether they’ve evaluated that evidence, we should assume that what they say is right and give them the benefit of the doubt over unclear or ambiguous assertions, unless we can provide specific evidence to show that they are wrong? If that is what you are saying, it sounds ominously similar to Russell’s teapot.

      You appear to be applying those criteria to what Daisy says, but not to what I’m saying. If I don’t give her the benefit of the doubt I’m not applying the Principle of Charity, but you don’t give me the benefit of the doubt because I must be bluffing.

      • So just to check, after all this (and despite having had a chance to ask Daisy a relevant question in person) you cannot identify anything Daisy has actually got wrong in her book, you just think you might be able to find something?

        I’ll ignore the straw man about Russell’s teapot, which seems to apply more to your argument than mine. Oh, I have been plenty charitable to you: bluffing is the kindest explanation for all this wasted time..

  1. I came across your interesting blog by doing a search on Daisy Christodoulou.As an educator what put her in the other camp was her obsession with assessment and her worship of cognitive science. I was introduced to her by someone who calls himself a cognitive scientist who recommended her myths book and Daniel Willingham’s – why kids don’t like school. The obvious way to find out why kids don’t like school is to ask them – ask those who like school and ask the one’s who don’t like school and it boils down to lack of autonomy, relevance of what is being taught’ lack of engagement ‘ alination from learning etc . We know the high achievers see the value of an education to get a good job, etc but there is nothing valuable in the learning for its own sake. here is an educator’s thoughts on the cognitive scientist Dan Willingham . Thoughtful guy, well-read in his own niches of educational psychology, but he seems more focused on and knowledgeable about cold cognition than hot cognition, and seems to assume factory-style schooling. The upshot is that he spends too much time for my tastes trying to figure out how to use ed psych principles to better engineer factory-style schooling to keep kids behaving and raising their test scores. Since I start with the premise that factory-style schooling is the wrong model educationally (and wrong way to treat other humans), I lose interest with his points rapidly. For example, if you haven’t read his work, he seems knowledgeable about and fixated on knocking down “learning styles,” and do so pretty convincingly in terms of auditory vs. visual vs. kinesthetic learners, but it’s almost as if he doesn’t then realize that knocking down this partially straw man doesn’t do away with the persistent need for more individualized education for all children.

    Dvora Kravitz , an Educational therapist – I work with an 8 year old who attends a progressive Jewish school. She has access to art, music, multisensory and meaningful learning. Here she is, she is admired as a creative and energetic learner. If she was in a public school, she would be marginalized as a special ed student.

    Some earnest assertions about different learning styles are, frankly, vapid and unpersuasive, and they make an irresistible target for smug pedagogical traditionalists and behaviorists. This essay, by contrast, is methodical and smart in its critique of the critiques –

    A article advocating a progressive education approach to facts and knowledge –

    Alfie Kohn’s Book The Schools our children deserve challenges the Old School ED Hirsch pedagogy now dressed up with cognitive science

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