evolved minds and education: intelligence

The second vigorously debated area that Geary refers to in Educating the Evolved Mind is intelligence. In the early 1900s statistician Charles Spearman developed a technique called factor analysis. When he applied it to measures of a range of cognitive abilities he found a strong correlation between them, and concluded that there must be some underlying common factor that he called general intelligence (g). General intelligence was later subdivided into crystallised intelligence (gC) resulting from experience, and fluid intelligence (gF) representing a ‘biologically-based ability to acquire skills and knowledge’ (p.25). The correlation has been replicated many times and is reliable –  at the population level, at least.  What’s also reliable is the finding that intelligence, as Robert Plomin puts it “is one of the best predictors of important life outcomes such as education, occupation, mental and physical health and illness, and mortality”.

The first practical assessment of intelligence was developed by French psychologist Alfred Binet, commissioned by his government to devise a way of identifying the additional needs of children in need of remedial education. Binet first published his methods in 1903, the year before Spearman’s famous paper on intelligence. The Binet-Simon scale (Theodore Simon was Binet’s assistant) was introduced to the US and translated into English by Henry H Goddard. Goddard had a special interest in ‘feeble-mindedness’ and used a version of Binet’s scale for a controversial screening test for would-be immigrants. The Binet-Simon scale was standardised for American children by Lewis Terman at Stanford University and published in 1916 as the Stanford-Binet test. Later, the concept of intelligence quotient (IQ – mental age divided by chronological age and multiplied by 100) was introduced, and the rest, as they say, is history.

what’s the correlation?

Binet’s original scale was used to identify specific cognitive difficulties in order to provide specific remedial education. Although it has been superseded by tests such as the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC), what all intelligence tests have in common is that they contain a number of sub-tests that test different abilities. The 1905 Stanford-Binet scale had 30 sub-tests and the WISC-IV has 15. Although the scores in sub-tests tend to be strongly correlated, Early Years teachers, Educational Psychologists and special education practitioners will be familiar with the child with the ‘spiky profile’ who has high scores on some sub-tests but low ones on others. Their overall IQ might be average, but that can mask considerable variation in cognitive sub-skills. Deidre Lovecky, who runs a resource centre in Providence Rhode Island for gifted children with learning difficulties, reports in her book Different Minds having to essentially pick ‘n’ mix sub-tests from different assessment instruments because children were scoring at ceiling on some sub-tests and at floor on others. In short, Spearman’s correlation might be true at the population level, but it doesn’t hold for some individuals. And education systems have to educate individuals.

is it valid?

A number of issues have been vigorously debated in relation to intelligence. One is its construct validity. There’s no doubt intelligence tests measure something – but whether that something is a single biologically determined entity is another matter. We could actually be measuring several biologically determined functions that are strongly dependent on each other. Or some biologically determined functions interacting with culturally determined ones. As the psychologist Edwin Boring famously put it way back in 1923 “Intelligence is what the tests test.” ie intelligence is whatever the tests test.

is it cultural?

Another contentious issue is the cultural factors implicit in the tests.  Goddard attempted to measure the ‘intelligence’ of European immigrants using sub-tests that included items culturally specific to the USA.  Stephen Jay Gould goes into detail in his criticism of this and other aspects of intelligence research in his book The Mismeasure of Man.  (Gould himself has been widely criticised so be aware you’re venturing into a conceptual minefield.)  You could just about justify culture-specificity in tests for children who had grown up in a particular culture, on the grounds that understanding cultural features contributed to overall intelligence. But there are obvious problems with the conclusions that can be drawn about gF in the case of children whose cultural background might be different.

I’m not going to venture in to bell-curve territory because the vigorous debate in that area is due to how intelligence tests are applied, rather than the content of the tests. Suffice it to say that much of the controversy about application has arisen because of assumptions made about what intelligence tests tell us. The Wikipedia discussion of Herrnstein & Murray’s book is a good starting point if you’re interested in following this up.

multiple intelligences?

There’s little doubt that intelligence tests are valid and reliable measures of the core abilities required to successfully acquire the knowledge and skills taught in schools in the developed industrialised world; knowledge and skills that are taught in schools because they are valued in the developed industrialised world.

But as Howard Gardner points out in his (also vigorously debated) book Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences, what’s considered to be intelligence in different cultures depends on what abilities are valued by different cultures. In the developed industrialised world, intelligence is what intelligence tests measure. If, on the other hand, you live on a remote Pacific Island and are reliant for your survival on your ability to catch fish and navigate across the ocean using only the sun, moon and stars for reference, you might value other abilities. What would those abilities tell you about someone’s ‘intelligence’? Many people place a high value on the ability to kick a football, sing in tune or play stringed instruments; what do those abilities tell you about ‘intelligence’?

it’s all about the constructs

If intelligence tests are a good measure of the abilities necessary for learning what’s taught in school, then fine, let’s use them for that purpose. What we shouldn’t be using them for is drawing conclusions about a speculative entity we’ve named ‘intelligence’. Or assuming, on the basis of those tests, that we can label some people more or less ‘intelligent’ than others, as Geary does e.g.

Intelligent individuals identify and apprehend bits of social and ecological information more easily and quickly than do other people” (p.26)


Individuals with high IQ scores learned the task more quickly than their less-
intelligent peers” (p.59)


What concerned me most about Geary’s discussion of intelligence wasn’t what he had to say about accuracy and speed of processing, or about the reliability and predictive validity of intelligence tests, which are pretty well supported. It was the fact that he appears to accept the concepts of g, gC and gF without question. And the ‘vigorous debate’ that’s raged for over a century is reduced to ‘details to be resolved’ (p.25) which doesn’t quite do justice to the furore over the concept, or the devastation resulting from the belief that intelligence is a ‘thing’.  Geary’s apparently unquestioning acceptance of intelligence brings me to the subject of the next post; his model of the education system.



Gardner, H (1983). Frames of Mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. Fontana (1993).

Geary, D (2007).  Educating the evolved mind: Conceptual foundations for an evolutionary educational psychology, in Educating the evolved mind: Conceptual foundations for an evolutionary educational psychology, JS Carlson & JR Levin (Eds). Information Age Publishing.

Gould, SJ (1996).  The Mismeasure of Man.  WW Norton.

Lovecky, D V (2004).  Different minds: Gifted children with AD/HD, Asperger Syndrome and other learning deficits.  Jessica Kingsley.


evolved minds and education: evolved minds

At the recent Australian College of Educators conference in Melbourne, John Sweller summarised his talk as follows:  “Biologically primary, generic-cognitive skills do not need explicit instruction.  Biologically secondary, domain-specific skills do need explicit instruction.”


Biologically primary and biologically secondary cognitive skills

This distinction was proposed by David Geary, a cognitive developmental and evolutionary psychologist at the University of Missouri. In a recent blogpost, Greg Ashman refers to a chapter by Geary that sets out his theory in detail.

If I’ve understood it correctly, here’s the idea at the heart of Geary’s model:


The cognitive processes we use by default have evolved over millennia to deal with information (e.g. about predators, food sources) that has remained stable for much of that time. Geary calls these biologically primary knowledge and abilities. The processes involved are fast, frugal, simple and implicit.

But we also have to deal with novel information, including knowledge we’ve learned from previous generations, so we’ve evolved flexible mechanisms for processing what Geary terms biologically secondary knowledge and abilities. The flexible mechanisms are slow, effortful, complex and explicit/conscious.

Biologically secondary processes are influenced by an underlying factor we call general intelligence, or g, related to the accuracy and speed of processing novel information. We use biologically primary processes by default, so they tend to hinder the acquisition of the biologically secondary knowledge taught in schools. Geary concludes the best way for students to acquire the latter is through direct, explicit instruction.


On the face of it, Geary’s model is a convincing one.   The errors and biases associated with the cognitive processes we use by default do make it difficult for us to think logically and rationally. Children are not going to automatically absorb the body of human knowledge accumulated over the centuries, and will need to be taught it actively. Geary’s model is also coherent; its components make sense when put together. And the evidence he marshals in support is formidable; there are 21 pages of references.

However, on closer inspection the distinction between biologically primary and secondary knowledge and abilities begins to look a little blurred. It rests on some assumptions that are the subject of what Geary terms ‘vigorous debate’. Geary does note the debate, but because he plumps for one view, doesn’t evaluate the supporting evidence, and doesn’t go into detail about competing theories, teachers unfamiliar with the domains in question could easily remain unaware of possible flaws in his model. In addition, Geary adopts a particular cultural frame of reference; essentially that of a developed, industrialised society that places high value on intellectual and academic skills. There are good reasons for adopting that perspective; and equally good reasons for not doing so. In a series of three posts, I plan to examine two concepts that have prompted vigorous debate – modularity and intelligence – and to look at Geary’s cultural frame of reference.


The concept of modularity – that particular parts of the brain are dedicated to particular functions – is fundamental to Geary’s model.   Physicians have known for centuries that some parts of the brain specialise in processing specific information. Some stroke patients for example, have been reported as being able to write but no longer able to read (alexia without agraphia), to be able to read symbols but not words (pure alexia), or to be unable to recall some types of words (anomia). Language isn’t the only ability involving specialised modules; different areas of the brain are dedicated to processing the visual features of, for example, faces, places and tools.

One question that has long perplexed researchers is how modular the brain actually is. Some functions clearly occur in particular locations and in those locations only; others appear to be more distributed. In the early 1980s, Jerry Fodor tackled this conundrum head-on in his book The modularity of mind. What he concluded is that at the perceptual and linguistic level functions are largely modular, i.e. specialised and stable, but at the higher levels of association and ‘thought’ they are distributed and unstable.  This makes sense; you’d want stability in what you perceive, but flexibility in what you do with those perceptions.

Geary refers to the ‘vigorous debate’ (p.12) between those who lean towards specialised brain functions being evolved and modular, and those who see specialised brain functions as emerging from interactions between lower-level stable mechanisms. Although he acknowledges the importance of interaction and emergence during development (pp. 14,18) you wouldn’t know that from Fig 1.2, showing his ‘evolved cognitive modules’.

At first glance, Geary’s distinction between stable biologically primary functions and flexible biologically secondary functions appears to be the same as Fodor’s stable/unstable distinction. But it isn’t.  Fodor’s modules are low-level perceptual ones; some of Geary’s modules in Fig. 1.2 (e.g. theory of mind, language, non-verbal behaviour) engage frontal brain areas used for the flexible processing of higher-level information.

Novices and experts; novelty and automation

Later in his chapter, Geary refers to research involving these frontal brain areas. Two findings are particularly relevant to his modular theory. The first is that frontal areas of the brain are initially engaged whilst people are learning a complex task, but as the task becomes increasingly automated, frontal area involvement decreases (p.59). Second, research comparing experts’ and novices’ perceptions of physical phenomena (p.69) showed that if there is a conflict between what people see and their current schemas, frontal areas of their brains are engaged to resolve the conflict. So, when physics novices are shown a scientifically accurate explanation, or when physics experts are shown a ‘folk’ explanation, both groups experience conflict.

In other words, what’s processed quickly, automatically and pre-consciously is familiar, overlearned information. If that familiar and overlearned information consists of incomplete and partially understood bits and pieces that people have picked up as they’ve gone along, errors in their ‘folk’ psychology, biology and physics concepts (p.13) are unsurprising. But it doesn’t follow that there must be dedicated modules in the brain that have evolved to produce those concepts.

If the familiar overlearned information is, in contrast, extensive and scientifically accurate, the ‘folk’ concepts get overridden and the scientific concepts become the ones that are accessed quickly, automatically and pre-consciously. In other words, the line between biologically primary and secondary knowledge and abilities might not be as clear as Geary’s model implies.  Here’s an example; the ability to draw what you see.

The eye of the beholder

Most of us are able to recognise, immediately and without error, the face of an old friend, the front of our own house, or the family car. However, if asked to draw an accurate representation of those items, even if they were in front of us at the time, most of us would struggle. That’s because the processes involved in visual recognition are fast, frugal, simple and implicit; they appear to be evolved, modular systems. But there are people can draw accurately what they see in front of them; some can do so ‘naturally’, others train themselves to do so, and still others are taught to do so via direct instruction.  It looks as if the ability to draw accurately straddles Geary’s biologically primary and secondary divide.  The extent to which modules are actually modular is further called into question by recent research involving the fusiform face area (FFA).

Fusiform face area

The FFA is one of the visual processing areas of the brain. It specialises in processing information about faces. What wasn’t initially clear to researchers was whether it processed information about faces only, or whether faces were simply a special case of the type of information it processes. There was considerable debate about this until a series of experiments found that various experts used their FFA for differentiating subtle visual differences within classes of items as diverse as birds, cars, chess configurations, x-ray images, Pokémon, and objects named ‘greebles’ invented by researchers.

What these experiments tell us is that an area of the brain apparently dedicated to processing information about faces, is also used to process information about modern artifacts with features that require fine-grained differentiation in order to tell them apart. They also tell us that modules in the brain don’t seem to draw a clear line between biologically primary information such as faces (no explicit instruction required), and biologically secondary information such as x-ray images or fictitious creatures (where initial explicit instruction is required).

What the experiments don’t tell us is whether the FFA evolved to process information about faces and is being co-opted to process other visually similar information, or whether it evolved to process fine-grained visual distinctions, of which faces happen to be the most frequent example most people encounter.

We know that brain mechanisms have evolved and that has resulted in some modular processing. What isn’t yet clear is exactly how modular the modules are, or whether there is actually a clear divide between biologically primary and biologically secondary abilities. Another component of Geary’s model about which there has been considerable debate is intelligence – the subject of the next post.

Incidentally, it would be interesting to know how Sweller developed his summary because it doesn’t quite map on to a concept of modularity in which the cognitive skills are anything but generic.


Fodor, J (1983).  The modularity of mind.  MIT Press.

Geary, D (2007).  Educating the evolved mind: Conceptual foundations for an evolutionary educational psychology, in Educating the evolved mind: Conceptual foundations for an evolutionary educational psychology, JS Carlson & JR Levin (Eds). Information Age Publishing.


I thought the image was from @greg_ashman’s Twitter timeline but can’t now find it.  Happy to acknowledge correctly if notified.

magic beans, magic bullets and crypto-pathologies

In the previous post, I took issue with a TES article that opened with fidget-spinners and closed with describing dyslexia and ADHD as ‘crypto-pathologies’. Presumably as an analogy with cryptozoology – the study of animals that exist only in folklore. But dyslexia and ADHD are not the equivalent of bigfoot and unicorns.

To understand why, you have to unpack what’s involved in diagnosis.

diagnosis, diagnosis, diagnosis

Accurate diagnosis of health problems has always been a challenge because:

  • Some disorders* are difficult to diagnose. A broken femur, Bell’s palsy or measles are easier to figure out than hypothyroidism, inflammatory bowel disease or Alzheimer’s.
  • It’s often not clear what’s causing the disorder. Fortunately, you don’t have to know the immediate or root causes for successful treatment to be possible. Doctors have made the reasonable assumption that patients presenting with the same signs and symptoms§ are likely to have the same disorder.

Unfortunately, listing the signs and symptoms isn’t foolproof because;

  • some disorders produce different signs and symptoms in different patients
  • different disorders can have very similar signs and symptoms.

some of these disorders are not like the others…

To complicate the picture even further, some signs and symptoms are qualitatively different from the aches, pains, rashes or lumps that indicate disorders obviously located in the body;  they involve thoughts, feelings and behaviours instead. Traditionally, human beings have been assumed to consist of a physical body and non-physical parts such as mind and spirit, which is why disorders of thoughts, feelings and behaviours were originally – and still are – described as mental disorders.

Doctors have always been aware that mind can affect body and vice versa. They’ve also long known that brain damage and disease can affect thoughts, feelings, behaviours and physical health. In the early 19th century, mental disorders were usually identified by key symptoms. The problem was that the symptoms of different disorders often overlapped. A German psychiatrist, Emil Kraepelin, proposed instead classifying mental disorders according to syndromes, or patterns of co-occurring signs and symptoms. Kraepelin hoped this approach would pave the way for finding the biological causes of disorders. (In 1906, Alois Alzheimer found the plaques that caused the dementia named after him, while he was working in Kraepelin’s lab.)

Kraepelin’s approach laid the foundations for two widely used modern classification systems for mental disorders; the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association, currently in its 5th edition (DSM V), and the International Classification of Diseases Classification of Mental and Behavioural Disorders published by the World Health Organisation, currently in its 10th edition (ICD-10).

Kraepelin’s hopes for his classification system have yet to be realised. That’s mainly because the brain is a difficult organ to study. You can’t poke around in it without putting your patient at risk. It’s only in the last few decades that scanning techniques have enabled researchers to look more closely at the structure and function of the brain, and the scans require interpretation –  brain imaging is still in its infancy.

you say medical, I say experiential

Kraepelin’s assumptions about distinctive patterns of signs and symptoms, and about their biological origins, were reasonable ones. His ideas, however, were almost the polar opposite to those of his famous contemporary, Sigmund Freud, who located the root causes of mental disorders in childhood experience. The debate has raged ever since. The dispute is due to the plasticity of the brain.  Brains change in structure and function over time and several factors contribute to the changes;

  • genes – determine underlying structure and function
  • physical environment e.g. biochemistry, nutrients, toxins – affects structure and function
  • experience – the brain processes information, and information changes the brain’s physical structure and biochemical function.

On one side of the debate is the medical model; in essence, it assumes that the causes of mental disorders are primarily biological, often due to a ‘chemical imbalance’. There’s evidence to support this view; medication can improve a patient’s symptoms. The problem with the medical model is that it tends to assume;

  • a ‘norm’ for human thought, feelings and behaviours – disorders are seen as departures from that norm
  • the cause of mental disorders is biochemical and the chemical ‘imbalance’ is identified (or not) through trial-and-error – errors can be catastrophic for the patient.
  • the cause is located in the individual.

On the other side of the debate is what I’ll call the experiential model (often referred to as anti-psychiatry or critical psychiatry). In essence it assumes the causes of unwanted thoughts, feelings or behaviours are primarily experiential, often due to adverse experiences in childhood. The problem with that model is that it tends to assume;

  • the root causes are experiential and not biochemical
  • the causes are due to the individual’s response to adverse experiences
  • first-hand reports of early adverse experiences are always reliable, which they’re not.


Kraepelin’s classification system wasn’t definitive – it couldn’t be, because no one knew what was causing the disorders. But it offered the best chance of identifying distinct mental health problems – and thence their causes and treatments. The disorders identified in Kraepelin’s system, the DSM and ICD, were – and most still are – merely labels given to clusters of co-occurring signs and symptoms.  People showing a particular cluster are likely to share the same underlying biological causes, but that doesn’t mean they do share the same underlying causes or that the origin of the disorder is biological.

This is especially true for signs and symptoms that could have many causes. There could be any number of reasons for someone hallucinating, withdrawing, feeling depressed or anxious – or having difficulty learning to read or maintain attention.  They might not have a medical ‘disorder’ as such. But you wouldn’t know that to read through the disorders listed in the DSM or ICD. They all look like bona fide, well-established medical conditions, not like labels for bunches of symptoms that sometimes co-occur and sometimes don’t, and that have a tendency to appear or disappear with each new edition of the classification system.  That brings us to the so-called ‘crypto-pathologies’ referred to in the TES article.

Originally, terms like dyslexia were convenient and legitimate shorthand labels for specific clusters of signs or symptoms. Dyslexia means difficulty with reading, as distinct from alexia which means not being able to read at all; both problems can result from stroke or brain damage. Similarly, autism was originally a shorthand term for the withdrawn state that was one of the signs of schizophrenia – itself a label.  Delusional parasitosis is also a descriptive label (the parasites being what’s delusional, not the itching).


What’s happened over time is that many of these labels have become reified – they’ve transformed from mere labels into disorders widely perceived as having an existence independent of the label. Note that I’m not saying the signs and symptoms don’t exist. There are definitely children who struggle with reading regardless of how they’ve been taught; with social interaction regardless of how they’ve been brought up; and with maintaining focus regardless of their environment. What I am saying is that there might be different causes, or multiple causes, for clusters of very similar signs and symptoms.  Similar signs and symptoms don’t mean that everybody manifesting those signs and symptoms has the same underlying medical disorder –  or even that they have a medical disorder at all.

The reification of labels has caused havoc for decades with research. If you’ve got a bunch of children with different causes for their problems with reading, but you don’t know what the different causes are so you lump all the children together according to their DSM label; or another bunch with different causes for their problems with social interaction but lump them all together; or a third bunch with different causes for their problems maintaining focus, but you lump them all together; you are not likely to find common causes in each group for the signs and symptoms.  It’s this failure to find distinctive features at the group level that has been largely responsible for claims that dyslexia, autism or ADHD ‘don’t exist’, or that treatments that have evidently worked for some individuals must be spurious because they don’t work for other individuals or for the heterogeneous group as a whole.


Oddly, in his TES article, Tom refers to autism as an ‘identifiable condition’ but to dyslexia and ADHD as ‘crypto-pathologies’ even though the diagnostic status of autism in the DSM and ICD is on a par with that of ADHD, and with ‘specific learning disorder with impairment in reading‘ with dyslexia recognised as an alternative term (DSM), or ‘dyslexia and alexia‘ (ICD).  Delusional parasitosis, despite having the same diagnostic status and a plausible biological mechanism for its existence, is dismissed as ‘a condition that never was’.

Tom is entitled to take a view on diagnosis, obviously. He’s right to point out that reading difficulties can be due to lack of robust instruction, and inattention can be due to the absence of clear routines. He’s right to dismiss faddish simplistic (but often costly) remedies. But the research is clear that children can have difficulties with reading due to auditory and/or visual processing impairments (search Google scholar for ‘dyslexia visual auditory’), that they can have difficulties maintaining attention due to low dopamine levels – exactly what Ritalin addresses (Iversen, 2006), or that they can experience intolerable itching that feels as if it’s caused by parasites.

But Tom doesn’t refer to the research, and despite provisos such as acknowledging that some children suffer from ‘real and grave difficulties’ he effectively dismisses some of those difficulties as crypto-pathologies and implies they can be fixed by robust teaching and clear routines  –  or that they are just imaginary.  There’s a real risk, if the research is by-passed, of ‘robust teaching’ and ‘clear routines’ becoming the magic bullets and magic beans he rightly despises.


*Disorder implies a departure from the norm.  At one time, it was assumed the norm for each species was an optimal set of characteristics.  Now, the norm is statistically derived, based on 95% of the population.

§ Technically, symptoms are indicators of a disorder experienced only by the patient and signs are detectable by others.  ‘Symptoms’ is often used to include both.


Iversen, L (2006).  Speed, Ecstasy, Ritalin: The science of amphetamines.  Oxford University Press.

white knights and imaginary dragons: Tom Bennett on fidget-spinners

I’ve crossed swords – or more accurately, keyboards – with Tom Bennett, the government’s behaviour guru tsar adviser, a few times, mainly about learning styles. And about Ken Robinson. Ironic really, because broadly speaking we’re in agreement. Ken Robinson’s ideas about education are woolly and often appear to be based on opinion rather than evidence, and there’s clear evidence that teachers who use learning styles, thinking hats and brain gym probably are wasting their time. Synthetic phonics helps children read and whole school behaviour policies are essential for an effective school and so on…

My beef with Tom has been his tendency to push his conclusions further than the evidence warrants. Ken Robinson is ‘the butcher given a ticker tape parade by the National Union of Pigs‘.  Learning Styles are ‘the ouija board of serious educational research‘.  What raised red flags for me this time is a recent TES article by Tom prompted by the latest school-toy fad ‘fidget-spinners’.


Tom begins with claims that fidget-spinners can help children concentrate. He says “I await the peer-reviewed papers from the University of Mickey Mouse confirming these claims“, assuming that he knows what the evidence will be before he’s even seen it.  He then introduces the idea that ‘such things’ as fidget-spinners might help children with an ‘identifiable condition such as autism or sensory difficulties’, and goes on to cite comments from several experts about fidget-spinners in particular and sensory toys in general. We’re told “…if children habitually fidget, the correct path is for the teacher to help the child to learn better behaviour habits, unless you’ve worked with the SENCO and the family to agree on their use. The alternative is to enable and deepen the unhelpful behaviour. Our job is to support children in becoming independent, not cripple them with their own ticks [sic]”.

If a child’s fidgeting is problematic, I completely agree that a teacher’s first course of action should be to help them stop fidgeting, although Tom offers no advice about how to do this. I’d also agree that the first course of action in helping a fidgety child shouldn’t be to give them a fidget-toy.

There’s no question that children who just can’t seem to sit still, keep their hands still, or who incessantly chew their sleeves, are seeking sensory stimulation, because that’s what those activities are – by definition. It doesn’t follow that allowing children to walk about, or use fidget or chew toys will ‘cripple them with their own ticks’. These behaviours are not tics, and usually extinguish spontaneously over time. If they’re causing disruption in the classroom, questions need to be asked about school expectations and the suitability of the school provision for the child, not about learning unspecified ‘better behaviour habits’.


Tom then devotes an entire paragraph to, bizarrely, Listerine. His thesis is that sales of antiseptic mouthwash soared due to an advertising campaign persuading Americans that halitosis was a serious social problem. His evidence is a blogpost by Sarah Zhang, a science journalist.  Sarah’s focus is advertising that essentially invented problems to be cured by mouthwash or soap. Neither she nor Tom mention the pre-existing obsession with cleanliness that arose from the discovery – prior to the discovery of antibiotics – that a primary cause of death and debility was bacterial infections that could be significantly reduced by the use of alcohol rubs, boiling and soap.

itchy and scratchy

The Listerine advertising campaign leads Tom to consider ‘fake or misunderstood illnesses’ that he describes as ‘charlatan’. His examples are delusional parasitosis (people believe their skin is itching because it’s infested with parasites) and Morgellon’s (belief that the itching is caused by fibres). Tom says “But there are no fibres or parasites. It’s an entirely psycho-somatic condition. Pseudo sufferers turn up at their doctors scratching like mad, some even cutting themselves to dig out the imaginary threads and crypto-bugs. Some doctors even wearily prescribe placebos and creams that will relieve the “symptoms”. A condition that never was, dealt with by a cure that won’t work. Spread as much by belief as anything else, like fairies.”

Here, Tom is pushing the evidence way beyond its limits. The fact that the bugs or fibres are imaginary doesn’t mean the itching is imaginary. The skin contains several different types of tactile receptor that send information to various parts of the brain. The tactile sensory system is complex so there are several points at which a ‘malfunction’ could occur.  The fact that busy GPs – who for obvious reasons don’t have the time or resources to examine the functioning of a patient’s neural pathways at molecular level – wearily prescribe a placebo, says as much about the transmission of medical knowledge in the healthcare system as it does about patients’ beliefs.


Tom refers to delusional parasitosis and Morgellon’s as ‘crypto-pathologies’ – whatever that means – and then introduces us to some crypto-pathologies he claims are encountered in school; dyslexia and ADHD. As he points out dyslexia and ADHD are indeed labels for ‘a collection of observed symptoms’. He’s right that some children with difficulty reading might simply need good reading tuition, and those with attention problems might simply need a good relationship with their teacher and clear routines. As he points out “…our diagnostic protocol is often blunt. Because we’re unsure what it is we’re diagnosing, and it becomes an ontological problem“.  He then says “This matters when we pump children with drugs like Ritalin to stun them still.

Again, some of Tom’s claims are correct but others are not warranted by the evidence. In the UK, Ritalin is usually prescribed by a paediatrician or psychiatrist after an extensive assessment of the child, and its effects should be carefully monitored. It’s a stimulant that increases available levels of dopamine and norepinephrine and it often enhances the ability to concentrate. It isn’t ‘pumped into’ children and it doesn’t ‘stun them still’, In the UK at least, NICE guidelines indicate it should be used as a last resort. The fact that its use has doubled in the last decade is a worrying trend. This is more likely to be due to the crisis in child and adolescent mental health services, than to an assumption that all attention problems in children are caused by a supposed medical condition we call ADHD.

Tom, rightly, targets bullshit. He says it matters because “many children suffer from very real and very grave difficulties, and it behoves us as their academic and social guardians to offer support and remedy when we can”. Understandably he wants to drive his point home. But superficial analysis and use of hyperbole risk real and grave difficulties being marginalised at best and ridiculed at worst by teachers who don’t have the time/energy/inclination to check out the detail of what he claims.

Specialist education, health and care services for children have been in dire straits for many years and the situation isn’t getting any better. This means teachers are likely to have little information about the underlying causes of children’s difficulties in school. If teachers take what Tom says at face value, there’s a real risk that children with real difficulties, whether they need to move their fingers or chew in order to concentrate, experience unbearable itching, struggle to read because of auditory, visual or working memory impairments, or have levels of dopamine that prevent them from concentrating, will be seen by some as having ‘crypto-conditions’ that can be resolved by good teaching and clear routines. If they’re not resolved, then the condition must be ‘psycho-somatic’.  Using evidence to make some points, but ignoring it to make others means the slings and arrows Tom hurls at the snake-oil salesmen and white knights galloping to save us from imaginary dragons are quite likely to be used as ammunition against the very children he seeks to help.

Clackmannanshire revisited

The Clackmannanshire study is often cited as demonstrating the positive impact of synthetic phonics (SP) on children’s reading ability. The study tracked the reading, spelling and comprehension progress, over seven years, of three groups of children initially taught to read using one of three different methods;

  • analytic phonics programme
  • analytic phonics programme supplemented by a phonemic awareness programme
  • synthetic phonics programme.

The programmes were followed for 16 weeks in Primary 1 (P1, 5-6 yrs). Reading ability was assessed before and after the programme and for each year thereafter, spelling ability each year from P1, and comprehension each year from P2. After the first post-test, the two analytic phonics groups followed the SP programme, completing it by the end of P1.

I’ve blogged briefly about this study previously, based on a summary of the research. It’s quite clear that the children in the SP group made significantly more progress in reading and spelling than those in the other two groups.  One of my concerns about the results is that in the summary they are presented at group level, ie as the mean scores of the children in each different condition. There’s no indication of the range of scores within each group.

The range is important because we need to know whether the programme improved reading and spelling for all the children in the group, or for just some of them. Say for example, that the mean reading age of children in the SP group was 12 months ahead of the children in the other groups at the end of P1. We wouldn’t know, without more detail, whether all the children’s scores clustered around the 12 month mark, or whether the group mean had been raised by a few children having very high scores, or had been lowered by a few having very low scores.

At the end of the summary is a graph showing the progress made by ‘underachievers’ ie any children who were more than 2 years behind in their test scores. There were some children in that category at the end of P2; by the end of P7 the proportion had risen to 14%. So clearly there were children who were still struggling despite following an SP programme.

During a recent Twitter conversation, Kathy Rastle, Professor of Psychology at Royal Holloway College London (@Kathy_Rastle), sent me a link to a more detailed report by the Clackmannanshire researchers, Rhona Johnston and Joyce Watson.

more detail

I hoped that the more detailed report would provide more… well, detail. It did, but the ranges of scores within the groups were presented as standard deviations, so the impact of the programmes on individual children still wasn’t clear. That’s important. Obviously, if a reading programme enables a group of children to make significant gains in their reading ability, it’s worth implementing. But we also need to know the impact it has on individual children, because the point of teaching children to read is that each child learns to read.

The detail I was looking for is in Chapter 8 “Underachieving Children”, ie those with scores more than 2 years below the mean for their age. Obviously, in P1 no children could be allocated to that category because they hadn’t been at school long enough. But from P2 onwards, the authors tabulated the numbers of ‘underachievers’. (They note that some children were absent for some of the tests.) I’ve summarised the proportions (for boys and girls together) below:

more than 1 year behind (%)

P2 P3 P4 P5 P6 P7
reading 2.2 2.0 6.0 8.6 15.1 11.9
spelling 1.1 4.0 8.8 12.6 15.7 24.0
comprehension 5.0 18.0 15.5 19.2 29.4 27.6

more than 2 years behind (%)

P2 P3 P4 P5 P6 P7
reading 0 0.8 0 1.6 8.4 5.6
spelling 0.4 0.4 0.4 1.7 3.0 10.1
comprehension 0 1.2 1.6 5.0 16.2 14.0

The researchers point out that the proportion of children with serious problems with reading and spelling is quite low, but that it would be “necessary to collect control data to establish what would be typical levels of underachievement in a non-synthetic phonics programme.” Well, yes.

The SP programme clearly had a significantly positive impact on reading and spelling for most children. However that clearly wasn’t true for all of them. The authors provide a detailed case study for one child (AF) who had a hearing difficulty and poor receptive and expressive language.  They compare his progress with that of the other 15 children in P4 who were one year or more behind their chronological age with reading.

Case study – AF

AF started school a year later than his peers and his class was in the analytic phonics and phonemic awareness group.  They then followed the SP programme at the end of P1.  Early in P2, AF started motor movement and language therapy programmes.

By the middle of P4, AF’s reading and spelling scores were almost the average for the group whose reading was a year or more behind, but his knowledge of letter sounds, phoneme segmentation and nonword reading was better than theirs. A detailed analysis  suggests his reading errors are the result of his lack of familiarity with some words, and that he’s spelling words as they sound to him. Like the other 15 children experiencing difficulties, he needed to revisit more complex phonics rules, so a supplementary phonics programme was provided in P5. When tested afterwards, the mean scores for the group showed spelling and reading above chronological age, and AF’s reading and spelling improved considerably as a result.

During P6 and P7 a peripatetic Support for Learning (SfL) teacher worked with AF on phonics for three 45 minute sessions each week and taught him strategies to improve his comprehension. An cccupational therapist and physiotherapist worked with him on his handwriting, and he was taught to touch type.  By the end of P7, AF’s reading age was 9 months above his chronological age and his spelling was more than 2 years ahead of the mean for the underachieving group.


The ‘Clacks’ study is often cited as conclusive proof of the efficacy of SP programmes. It’s often implied that SP will make a significant difference for the troublesome 17% of school leavers who lack functional literacy.   What intrigued me about the study was the proportion of children in P7 who still had difficulty with functional literacy despite having had SP training. It’s 14%, suspiciously close to the proportion of ‘functionally illiterate’ school leavers.

Some teachers have argued that if all the children had had systematic synthetic phonics teaching from the outset, the ‘Clacks’ figures might be different, but AF’s experience suggests otherwise.  He obviously had substantial initial difficulties with reading, but by the end of primary school had effectively caught up with his peers. But his success wasn’t due only to the initial SP programme. Or even to the supplementary SP programme provided in P5. It was achieved only after intensive, tailored 1-1 interventions on the part of a team of professionals from outside school.

My children’s school, in England, at the time when AF was in P7, was not offering these services to children with AF’s level of difficulty. Most of the children had followed an initial SP programme, but there was no supplementary SP course on offer. The equivalent to the SfL teacher carried out annual assessments and made recommendations. Speech and Language and Occupational therapists didn’t routinely offer treatment to individual children except via schools, and weren’t invited into the one my children attended. And I’ve yet to hear of a physiotherapist working in a mainstream primary in our area.

As a rule of thumb, local authorities will not carry out a statutory assessment of a child until their school can demonstrate that they don’t have the resources to meet the child’s needs.  As a rule of thumb, schools are reluctant to spend money on specialist professionals if there’s a chance that the LA will bear the cost of that in a statutory assessment.  As a consequence, children are often several years ‘behind’ before they even get assessed, and the support they get is often in the form of a number of hours working with a teaching assistant who’s unlikely to be a qualified teacher, let alone a speech and language therapist, occupational therapist or physio.

If governments want to tackle the challenge of functional illiteracy, they need to invest in services that can address the root causes.


Johnston, R & Watson, J (2005), “The Effects of Synthetic Phonics teaching on reading and spelling attainment: A seven year longitudinal study”, The Scottish Executive website http://www.gov.scot/Resource/Doc/36496/0023582.pdf

“the best which has been thought and said…”

This quotation was used liberally by the previous Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, and by a number of teacher bloggers, as a guiding principle for the content of the school curriculum. It comes from the preface of Matthew Arnold’s essay Culture and Anarchy. Arnold says:

The whole scope of this essay is to recommend culture as the great help out of our present difficulties; culture being a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which must concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world, and through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits, which we now follow staunchly but mechanically, vainly imagining that there is a virtue in following them staunchly which makes up for the mischief of following them mechanically.” (p.5)

The appeal of “the best which has been thought and said” is immediate. Who, after all, would advocate ‘the worst’ or ‘the most mediocre’? But the problems of applying it as a guiding principle are obvious. How do we know what’s ‘best’? Who decides on the criteria?  I assumed these questions must have occurred to Matthew Arnold too, so I read Culture and Anarchy to see how he tackles them.

In the summer of 1867 Arnold delivered his last lecture as Professor of Poetry at Oxford. It was entitled Culture and its Enemies and published in the Cornhill Magazine shortly afterwards. In the lecture, Arnold complained that his contemporaries tended to be too practical and not theoretical enough; his critics accused him of the opposite.   In response he wrote a series of essays that were published in book form as Culture and Anarchy in 1869. The chapters in the second edition (1875) were given titles: Sweetness and Light; Doing as One Likes; Barbarians, Philistines, Populace; Hebraism and Hellenism; and Our Liberal Practitioners.


The choice of anarchy in opposition to culture wasn’t just a literary device; anarchy was a real threat to the stability of society at the time, as exemplified by the French revolution and the American civil war that had only just finished. A recurring complaint throughout the essay is the idea of “the Englishman’s right to do what he likes; his right to march where he likes, meet where he likes, enter where he likes, hoot as he likes, threaten as he likes, smash as he likes. All this, I say, tends to anarchy…” (p. 57).

Many of the examples of the ‘Englishman’s right to do what he likes’ were the result of demonstrations in support of the second Representation of the People Act (Second Reform Act), eventually passed in 1867, which doubled the number of men entitled to vote and which had met with robust opposition in some quarters.


Arnold proposed culture as the only way to avoid anarchy because the alternatives (e.g. religion, philosophy, politics) had failed to do that. Arnold’s culture is the study of perfection (p.34). It originates in the individual being the best they can be, but results in practical outcomes that, if applied collectively, could make a significant difference to society. For Arnold, culture is characterised by sweetness and light which he equates with ‘reason and the will of God’, and by the endeavour to make reason and the will of God prevail.

He characterises the aristocracy, middle class and working class as Barbarians, Philistines and Populace respectively, but recognises that individuals within each class were “led, not by their class spirit, but by a general humane spirit, by the love of human perfection”. Although tempered by ‘class instinct’, that humane instinct could be propagated by the authority of ‘a commanding best self’ or ‘right reason’ (p.81).

the best which has been thought or said

Arnold sees the human striving for perfection as influenced by two forces which he labels Hellenism and Hebraism; Hellenism is the desire to see things as they really are, and Hebraism a desire for good conduct and obedience. Characterising culture in this way allows Arnold to refer to literatures with which he is very familiar; classical Greek texts, the Bible, and the Church Fathers.

Those cited by Arnold are many and varied. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle rub shoulders with the prophet Zechariah, the Church Fathers, Liberal politicians, Nonconformist preachers, and columnists in The Times and the Daily Telegraph. The Liberals, Nonconformists and columnists are included presumably because Arnold was responding to criticisms that his writing was detached, and wanted to demonstrate the relevance of culture to contemporary challenges such as free trade, the extension of the franchise, and the disestablishment of the Irish Church. Some appear to be there only so Arnold can ridicule them.

To me, despite Arnold’s lofty aspirations for culture, his model came across as rather superficial and parochial. He cites great thinkers, but they are primarily from the Hebraic, Greek, and Christian traditions he’s familiar with and approves of. He doesn’t unpack their ideas or critique them, despite there being no shortage of thinkers who were unpacking Hebraic, Greek, and Christian ideas and critiquing them at the time.

Arnold’s argument is based on the assumption that Hebrew, Greek, and Christian thinking must be right and that the three strands were all striving for a form of perfection that existed – at least as an ideal.  His worldview undoubtedly raises the reader’s gaze to higher things than the sordid practicalities of everyday life. But I felt that he looked straight past the sordid practicalities that many people have to deal with in order to start striving for perfection. He seemed more concerned that people trying to gain (prohibited) entry to Hyde Park for a Reform League demonstration had broken railings and smashed windows, than that that many of the demonstrators didn’t have a vote (p.57). And more concerned about a theological misconception that children were sent from God, than that those in East London ‘had hardly a rag to cover them’ (p.140).

I can see why Culture and Anarchy might appeal to Michael Gove. It’s full of high ideals and the names of Great Thinkers. It’s also very wordy; Arnold essentially says what he has to say in his 30-page Preface; the other 150-odd pages are, in my view, superfluous. And the entertainingly critical references to contemporary pundits would be familiar territory to Gove, previously a columnist for The Times.  But it’s all too easy, if your basic needs are being met and you’re highly literate, to assume that the really important thing in life is striving for high ideals via conversations that take place in the news media, rather than knowing where your next meal is coming from and having some control over your day-to-day existence.

I felt Culture and Anarchy didn’t address the root causes of the challenges facing English society in the mid 19th century, or how they could best be tackled. Nor that ‘the best which has been thought and said’ comes close to telling us what education should look like.


I read the Oxford World Classics edition of Culture and Anarchy, published in 2006. It has a useful introduction and chronology of Arnold’s life, and excellent historical explanatory notes. Irritatingly, there’s no index, but the cover image, London Street Scene by John Orlando Perry (1835) is superbly well chosen.

a modern day trivium

In the two previous posts, I’ve criticised Martin Robinson’s argument that traditional and progressive education are mutually exclusive approaches characterised by single core values; subject centred and child centred, respectively.

Martin describes himself as an “educationalist with an interest in culture, politics, creativity, and the Liberal Arts (especially grammar, dialectic and rhetoric)”. Grammar, logic and rhetoric are the three strands of the mediaeval trivium and Martin’s educational consultancy and his blog are called Trivium 21C. In response to my comments, he suggested I produce a graphical representation of my understanding of the trivium.

liberal arts, trivium and quadrivium

In Ancient Greece and Rome, the liberal arts were the knowledge and skills it was considered essential for a free man to learn in order to participate in civic society. The liberal arts were revived during the reign of Charlemagne in the 8th century, in an effort to improve educational and cultural standards across Western Europe. Seven subjects were studied; grammar, logic and rhetoric made up the foundational trivium, and the quadrivium consisted of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music.

The trivium essentially trained students to think, and the quadrivium gave them the opportunity to apply their thinking to mathematical concepts (considered fundamental to all knowledge by the Greek philosophers). The seven liberal arts formed the foundation that enabled students to proceed to study theology, medicine or law.

Up until the early 19th century, the body of collective human knowledge was relatively small.   It was possible for a well-educated person to master all of it.   In order to acquire the knowledge, and to understand and apply it, you’d have to learn Latin and probably Greek, and also how scholars (who would have written in Latin) reasoned. The trivium made explicit the structure of language, how language was used to reason, and how to explain and persuade using language.

Since the early 19th century our collective knowledge has expanded enormously and much of that knowledge is recorded in English. There are good reasons why English-speaking students should learn the structure of their native language, how to reason in it, and how to use it to explain and persuade. But those skills wouldn’t be much use without the knowledge to apply them to.

I can see how those principles could be applied to our current body of knowledge, and that’s what I’ve mapped out below.Slide1

Grammar would make explicit the structure of the knowledge (including the structure of language). Logic would make reasoning explicit – and common errors and biases in thinking. (Martin replaces logic with dialectic, a process by which different parties seek to arrive at the truth through reasoned discussion with each other.) Rhetoric would make explicit the representation of knowledge, including how people conceptualise it. Incidentally, the body of knowledge has a fuzzy boundary because although much of it is reliable, some is still uncertain.

modern liberal arts and cultural literacy

Many modern colleges and universities offer liberal arts courses, although what’s entailed varies widely. Whatever the content, the focus of liberal arts is on preparing the student for participation in civic society, as distinct from professional, vocational or technical training.

So… I can see the point of the trivium in its original context. And how the principles of the trivium could be applied to the body of knowledge available in the 21st century. Those principles would provide a practical way of ensuring students had a thorough understanding of the knowledge they were applied to.

But… I do have some concerns about using the trivium to do that. The emphasis of the trivium and of liberal arts education, is on language. Language is the primary vehicle for ideas, so there are very good reasons for students mastering language and its uses. And the purpose of a liberal arts education is to prepare students for life, rather than just for work. There are good reasons for that too; human beings are obviously much more than economic units.

However, language and the ideas it conveys also appears to be the end-point of education for liberal arts advocates, rather than just a means to an end. The content of the education is frequently described as ‘the best which has been thought or said’ (Arnold, 1869), and the purpose to enable students to participate in the ‘conversation of mankind’ (Oakeshott, 1962).

The privileging of words and abstract ideas over the nitty-gritty of everyday life is a characteristic of liberal arts education that runs from Plato through the mediaeval period to the modern day. Plato was primarily concerned with the philosopher king and the philosophers who debated with him, not with people who grew vegetables, made copper pots or traded olive oil.   Charlemagne’s focus was on making sure priests could read the Vulgate and that there were enough skilled scribes to keep records, not in improving technology, or the fortunes of the wool industry.

This dualistic rift still permeates thinking about education as evidenced by the ongoing debate about academic v vocational education. Modern-day liberal arts advocates favour the academic approach because, rightly, they see education as more than preparation for work.   Their emphasis, instead, is on cultural literacy. Cultural literacy is important for everybody because it gives access to ideas. However, the flow of information needs to be in two directions, not just one.

Recent events suggest that policy-makers who attended even ‘the best’ private schools, where cultural literacy was highly valued, have struggled to generate workable solutions to the main challenges facing the human race; the four identified by Capra and Luisi (2014) are globalisation, climate change, agriculture, and sustainable design. The root causes and the main consequences of such challenges involve the lowest, very concrete levels that would be familiar to ancient Greek farmers, coppersmiths and merchants, to mediaeval carpenters and weavers, and to those who work in modern factories, but might be unfamiliar to philosophers, scholars or politicians who could rely on slaves or servants.

An education that equips people for life rather than work does not have to put language and ideas on a pedestal; we are embodied beings that live in a world that is uncompromisingly concrete and sometimes sordidly practical. An all-round education will involve practical science, technology and hands-on craft skills, not to prepare students for a job, but so they know how the world works.  It will not just prepare them for participating in conversations.


Arnold, M (1869).  Culture and Anarchy.  Accessed via Project Gutenberg http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/4212/pg4212-images.html

Capra, F and Luisi, PL (2014).  The Systems View of Life, Cambridge University Press (p. 394)

Oakeshott, M (1962).”The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind” in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays. London: Methuen, 197-247. Accessed here http://english.ttu.edu/kairos/2.1/features/brent/oakeshot.htm