Dominic Cummings has become a highly influential figure. He steered the UK’s education system towards a ‘knowledge curriculum’, persuaded many who voted in the 2016 referendum that they wanted the UK to leave the EU, and is now well on the way to ensuring that Brexit gets done – whatever that entails.
In 2013 Cummings published online an essay entitled Some Thoughts on Education and Political Priorities. His thoughts extend to nearly 250 pages. I had a couple of goes at reading them at the time, but was fazed by the plethora of references to mathematicians and physicists. My rusty A level maths and even more rusty O level physics weren’t quite up to checking them out. Following Cummings’ spectacular return to public life, I scrolled past them and found myself in more familiar territory. This is the first of three posts, on Cummings’ views of education, intelligence, and expertise.
An Odyssean Education
Cummings isn’t happy with education systems. He complains that students aren’t taught about some fundamentally important ideas, so political leaders lack them too, which explains poor political decisions. He believes the ideas could go a long way to resolving the global crises facing us, so it’s imperative they’re taught in schools and universities. He’s particularly interested in the education of people with a high IQ.
Cummings refers to Neitzsche’s distinction between ‘Apollonian’ thinkers using logical analysis and ‘Dionysians’ who use intuition and synthesis. The physicist Murray Gell-Man suggested a third group – ‘Odysseans’ – who “combine the two predelictions”, look for connections between ideas, and take a “crude look at the whole” (p.5). As Cummings puts it “An Odyssean curriculum would give students and politicians some mathematical foundations and a map to navigate such subjects without requiring a deep specialist understanding of each element” (p.7). He’s right about the map. Human knowledge has increased exponentially over the past century, so in-depth specialisms have become the order of the day. The best anyone could currently achieve is a ‘crude look at the whole’ but that crude look is essential if we are to understand the challenges confronting us.
Cummings structures his Odyssean curriculum as a “schema of seven big areas” (p.7) sketched out on page 2:
- Maths and complexity
- Energy and space
- Physics and computation
- Biological engineering
- Mind and machine
- The scientific method, education, training and decisions
- Political economy, philosophy, and avoiding catastrophes.
The essay includes 15 Endnotes on specific topics, and a reading list. In this post, I focus on education, addressed in Chapter 6.
Uniformity vs diversity
Cummings is critical of an education policy that aims for increased uniformity of achievement, based on the assumption that all students have the same potential, and would reach it if aspirations were raised and equal opportunities provided. Cummings’ model in contrast, assumes students don’t have the same potential because differences in ability are largely genetic in origin. He thinks more effective teaching will raise attainment levels for all, but will also widen the attainment gap (pp.74, 83). In my view, both models are wrong due to flaws in their implicit starting assumptions. Here’s why:
Human beings have been ‘successful’ in the evolutionary sense, in part because speech enables us to communicate complex information to each other. To survive and maintain good quality of life, everyone doesn’t need to know everything, but we each need access to the expertise of farmers, plumbers, electricians, doctors, lawyers, poets and dancers to name but few.
What enables populations to adapt to changing environments is genetic diversity. And genetic diversity produces people with the diverse abilities, aptitudes and interests that enable communities to adapt to changing circumstances. Communities thrive, not because of their uniformity, but because of their diversity. A good general education is important for everyone because we each need to know how the world works, but the last thing we need is for everyone to be the same.
The diversity does indeed mean that improving teaching would result in larger gaps in attainment – but only if you measure attainment on a linear scale such as exam results or IQ. Cummings is right that we desperately need people with high IQs who can do the maths required to model complex systems, and politicians who understand what’s being modelled. But our society couldn’t function if it consisted entirely of people who were a whiz at complex equations and/or political decision-making; we need people with a wide range of abilities, aptitudes and interests to make life sustainable and worth living.
Uniformity appeals to policy-makers because one-size-fits-all policies look like they’ll save money. A diversity narrative is often used to make uniformity more palatable. But diversity in communities doesn’t only make life more interesting and colourful, it’s essential for our biological and economic survival and well being.
Genetic diversity provides communities with the wide range of abilities, aptitudes and interests they need to thrive. Ironically, the suitability of an education to aptitude (what someone is good at) has been embedded in English education law since at least 1944, but has received scant attention since the advent of the national curriculum and standardised testing.
Paying attention to aptitude doesn’t mean every student needs a personalised education programme, nor that schools should undertake vocational training. But developing the inherent qualitative variation in aptitude would mean the ensuing quantitative variation in exam scores became less important. Gaps in academic achievement matter only to societies that accord a disproportionately high status to professions requiring academic skills.
For example, doctors and lawyers are generally well paid and have high social status. The pay and social status of train drivers and electricians is generally lower. But train drivers and electricians are no less essential to a functioning community. Cummings lauds scientists, and is pretty dismissive of doctors and lawyers, but the people who maintain the complex infrastructure of the developed world don’t feature at all in his model of education, other than often being on the wrong side of the IQ bell curve.
To fix the problems with the education system, Cummings proposes (pp.69-83):
- Largely eliminate failure with the basics in primary schools
- Largely eliminate failure with the basics in secondary schools
- A scientific approach to teaching practice
- Maths for most 16-18
- Specialist schools from which all schools (and Universities) can learn
- Web-based curricula, MOOCs, and HE/FE
- Computer Science and 3D printers: bits and atoms, learning and making
- Teacher hiring, firing and training
- Simplify the appallingly complicated funding system, make data transparent and give parents a real school choice.
Most of his criticisms of the education system are valid ones, but criticism is the easy bit – it’s more challenging to come up with alternatives. Cummings generates ideas like they’re going out of fashion, but almost invariably overlooks context; notably what caused the problems, and the implications of his ideas being implemented. Here are some examples:
Maths For Cummings ‘the basics’ are English, Maths and Science, with Maths the sine qua non because it provides the ‘language of nature’ (p.63). His proposal that 16-18 year-olds continue to study ‘some sort of Maths course’ (p.75) was implemented in 2015 in the form of students being required to re-sit Maths and English GCSEs if they got lower than a C grade. As far as I’m aware the scheme wasn’t piloted, placed a huge burden on an FE sector already pared to the bone, and many students found their career plans stalled due to an arbitrary and unnecessary requirement.
Reading The UK’s achievement in reading is contrasted with that of Finland (p.69), but overlooks the fact that Finnish orthography is highly transparent (almost 1-1 correspondence between graphemes and phonemes) whereas English orthography is highly opaque.
Specialist schools Cummings has high hopes for specialist schools (pp.75-77) but doesn’t mention their introduction in the 1988 Education Reform Act, or that under New Labour most state secondaries became specialist schools. Evaluations showed the consequent small improvement in exam results was as likely due to the additional funding, rather than specialist status as such. There doesn’t appear to have been a subsequent surge in superb scientists or brilliant politicians.
Teacher hiring, firing, and training For Cummings “real talent is rare, mediocrity ubiquitous” (p.81). He would recruit academic high flyers, pay them well, get “roughly averagely talented teachers” to use Direct Instruction scripts and allow head teachers to sack the ones who still didn’t make the grade. He doesn’t mention working conditions or why teacher retention is so low.
Cummings also claims “managing schools is much easier than being a brilliant maths teacher and requires only the import of competent (not brilliant) professional managers from outside the education world” (p.83). The transferable management skills hypothesis has been widely tested since the 1980s and been found seriously wanting.
Lectures We’re told “students remember little from traditional lectures” (p.72). That might because traditionally, lectures formed only the framework for the students’ learning. Traditionally, students were expected to do further reading. And the ‘proven’ Oxbridge tutorial system is not as Cummings claims, limited to Oxford and Cambridge (p.78). It’s been in use in every university I’ve been involved with from the 1970s to the present. Maybe I’ve just been lucky.
Funding The education funding system certainly needs rationalising, but costs vary across geographical areas, so who decides what a “flat per pupil amount” with “as few tweaks as possible” (p.81) means?
Parent choice “The other things described above … could be done even if one disagrees with the idea of a decentralised system driven by parent choice and prefers the old hierarchical system run by MPs, Unions, and civil servants” (p.83). Cummings appears completely unaware that the ‘old hierarchical’ system was decentralized and run by local authorities, school governors (including parents) and head teachers. And would probably have stayed that way if it hadn’t been deliberately centralized relatively recently by the Thatcher and subsequent governments.
Data transparency Few would want to “define success according to flawed league table systems based on flawed GCSEs” but if “private schools have defined success according to getting pupils into elite universities” (p.82) where does that leave the bulk of the population? We’re not all going to get into elite universities – if we did, they wouldn’t, by definition, be elite.
Scientific evidence Cummings is right that an evidence-based approach to education is vital, but has a touching faith in randomized controlled trials (RCTs) (p.64). The medical community’s objections to RCTs was not, as Cummings claims, because their expertise would be challenged by data, but because individual patients don’t always share the features of a large population. The same is true for school pupils.
Cummings follows Feynman in accusing educational researchers of ‘Cargo Cult’ science – mimicking the surface features of scientific research but not applying its deep structure (p.70). Regrettably, deep structure is noticeable by its absence from the hotch-potch of findings about cognition, lectures, tutorials, testing, genetics and IQ that he proposes as an alternative.
Cummings repeatedly does what systems theorists call subsystem optimization at the expense of system optimization. A bit of a tongue twister, but it’s a simple and common phenomenon. The components of systems, by definition, are linked to each other, so tweaking one part is likely to result in changes to another. And improving part of the system can sometimes have the effect of making things worse overall. If the components of a system are loosely coupled (weakly connected), the impact might be negligible. If they’re tightly coupled (strongly connected) the impact can be substantial.
Cummings should know this because he devotes an entire section to the features of complex systems (pp.17-21), but appears have filed complex systems under ‘mathematical modelling’ rather than ‘public policy’ in his mental directory. He doesn’t apply systems theory to his own proposals, even though he recognizes many poor political decisions are made because politicians don’t understand how complex systems work. A similar criticism can be applied to his thoughts on genetics and IQ, the subject of the next post.