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.

getting it wrong from the beginning: natural learning

In my previous post, I said that I felt that in Getting It Wrong From The Beginning: Our Progressive Inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey and Jean Piaget Kieran Egan was too hard on Herbert Spencer and didn’t take sufficient account of the context in which Spencer formulated his ideas. In this post, I look in more detail at the ideas in question and Egan’s critique of them.

natural learning

Egan says that the “holy grail of progressiveness … has been to discover methods of school instruction derived from and modelled on children’s effortless learning … in households, streets and fields” (pp.38-39). In essence, progressives like Spencer see all learning as occurring in the same way, implying that children find school learning difficult only because it doesn’t take into account how they learn naturally. Their critics see school learning as qualitatively different to natural learning; it requires thinking, and thinking doesn’t come naturally and is effortful so students don’t like it.

It’s inaccurate to describe the learning children do in ‘households, streets and fields’ as ‘effortless’. Apparently effortless would be more accurate. That’s because a key factor in learning is rehearsal. Babies and toddlers spend many, many hours rehearsing their motor, language, and sensory processing skills and in acquiring information about the world around them. Adolescents do the same in respect of interacting with peers, using video games or playing in a band. Adults can become highly competent in the workplace or at cooking, motor mechanics or writing novels in their spare time. What makes this learning appear effortless is that the individuals are highly motivated to put in the effort, so the learning doesn’t feel like work. I think there are three main motivational factors in so-called ‘natural learning’; sensory satisfaction (in which I’d include novelty-seeking and mastery), social esteem and sheer necessity – if it’s a case of acquiring knowledge and skills or starving, the acquisition of knowledge and skills usually wins.

School learning tends to differs from ‘natural’ learning in two main respects. One is motivational. School learning is essentially enforced – someone else decides what you’re going to learn about regardless of whether you want to learn about it or see an immediate need to learn about it. The other is that the breadth of the school curriculum means that there isn’t enough time for learning to occur ‘naturally’. If I were to spend a year living with a Spanish family or working for a chemist I would learn more Spanish or chemistry naturally than I would if I had two Spanish or chemistry lessons a week at school simply because the amount of rehearsal time would be more in the Spanish family or in the chemistry lab than it would be in school. Schools generally teach the rules of languages or of science explicitly and students have to spend more time actively memorising vocabulary and formulae because there simply isn’t the time available to pick them up ‘naturally’.

progressive ‘myths’

Egan’s criticism of Spencer’s ideas centres around three core principles of progressive education; simple to complex, concrete to abstract and known to unknown – Egan calls the principles ‘myths’. Egan presents what at first appears to be a convincing demolition job on all three principles, but the way he uses the constructs involved is different to the way in which they are used by Spencer and/or by developmental psychology. Before unpacking Egan’s criticism of the core principles, I think it would be worth looking at the way he views cognition.

the concept of mind

Egan frequently refers to the concept of ‘mind’. ‘Mind’ is a useful shorthand term when referring to activities like feeling, thinking and learning, but it’s too vague a concept to be helpful when trying to figure out the fine detail of learning. Gilbert Ryle points out that even in making a distinction between mind and body, as Descartes did, we make a category error – a ‘mind’ isn’t the same sort of thing as a body, so we can’t make valid comparisons between them. If I’ve understood Ryle correctly, what he’s saying is that ‘mind’ isn’t just a different type of thing to a body, ‘mind’ doesn’t exist in the way a body exists, but is rather an emergent property of what a person does – of their ‘dispositions’, as he calls them.

Emergent properties that appear complex and sophisticated can result from some very simple interactions. An example is flocking behaviour. At first glance, the V-formation in flight adopted by geese and ducks or the extraordinary patterns made by flocks of starlings before roosting or by fish evading a predator look pretty complex and clever. But in fact these apparently complex behaviours can emerge from some very simple rules of thumb (heuristics) such as each bird or fish maintaining a certain distance from the birds or fish on either side of them, and moving in the general direction of its neighbours. Similarly, some human thinking can appear complex and sophisticated when in fact it’s the outcome of some simple biological processes. ‘Minds’ might not exist in the same way as bodies do, but brains are the same kind of thing as bodies and do exist in the same way as bodies do, and brains have a significant impact on how people feel, think, and learn.

the brain and learning

Egan appeals to Fodor’s model of the brain in which “we have fast input systems and and a slower, more deliberative central processor” (p.39). Fodor’s fast and ‘stupid’ input systems are dedicated to processing particular types of information and work automatically, meaning that we can’t not learn things like motor skills or language. Fodor is broadly correct in his distinction, but I think Egan has drawn the wrong conclusions from this idea. A core challenge in research is that often more than one hypothesis offers a plausible explanation for a particular phenomenon. The genius of research is in eliminating the hypotheses that actually don’t explain the phenomenon. But if you’re not familiar with a field and you’re not aware that there are competing hypotheses, it’s easy to assume that there’s only one explanation for the data. This is what Egan appears to do in relation to cognitive processes; he sees the cognitive data through the spectacles of a model that construes natural learning as qualitatively different to the type of learning that happens in school.

Egan assumes that the apparent ease with which children learn to recognise faces or pick up languages and the fact that there are dedicated brain areas for face recognition and for language implies that those functions are inbuilt automatic systems that result in effortless learning. But that’s not the only hypothesis in town. What’s equally possible that face-recognition and language need to be learned. There’s general agreement that the human brain is hard-wired to extract signals from noise – to recognise patterns – but the extent to which patterns are identified and learned depends on the frequency of exposure to the patterns. For most babies, human facial features are the first visual pattern they see, and it’s one they see a great many times during their first day of life, so it’s not surprising that, even at a few hours old, they ‘prefer’ facial features the right way up rather than upside down. It’s a relatively simple pattern, so would be learned quickly. Patricia Kuhl’s work on infants’ language acquisition suggests that a similar principle is in operation in relation to auditory information – babies’ brains extract patterns from the speech they hear and the rate at which the patterns are extracted is a function of the frequency of exposure to speech. The patterns in speech are much more complex than facial features, so language takes much longer to learn.

Egan’s understanding of mind and brain colours the way he views Spencer’s principles. He also uses the constructs embedded in the principles in a different way to Spencer. As a consequence, I feel his case against the principles is considerably weakened.

the three principles of progressive education

simple to complex

Spencer’s moment of epiphany with regard to education was when he realised that the gradual transition from simple to complex observed in the evolution of living organisms, the way human societies have developed and the pre-natal development of the foetus, also applied to the way human beings learn. Egan points out that this idea was challenged by the discovery of the second law of thermodynamics which states that isolated systems evolve towards maximum entropy – in other words complexity tends to head towards simplicity, the opposite of what Spencer and the evolutionists were claiming. What critics overlook is that although the second law of thermodynamics applies to the isolated system of the universe as a whole and any isolated system within it, most systems in the universe aren’t isolated. Within the vast, isolated universe system, subatomic particles, chemicals and living organisms are interacting with each other all the time. If that wasn’t the case, complex chemical reactions wouldn’t happen, organisms wouldn’t change their structure and babies wouldn’t be born. I think Egan makes a valid point about early human societies not consisting of simple savages, but human societies, like the evolution of living organisms, chemical reactions, the development of babies and the way people learn if left to their own devices, do tend to start simple and move towards complex.

Egan challenges the application of this principle to education by suggesting that the thinking of young children can be very complex as exemplified by their vivid imaginations and “mastering language and complex social rules when most adults can’t program a VCR” (p.62). He also claims this principle has “hidden and falsified those features of children’s thinking that are superior to adults’” (p.90), namely children’s use of metaphor that he says declines once they become literate (p.93). I think Egan is right that Spencer’s idea of cognition unfolding along a predetermined straight developmental line from simple to complex is too simplistic and doesn’t pay enough attention to the role of the environment. But I think he’s mistaken in suggesting that language, social behaviour and metaphor are examples of complex thinking in children. Egan himself attributes young children’s mastery of language and complex social rules to Fodor’s ‘stupid’ systems, which is why they are often seen as a product of ‘natural’ learning. Children might use metaphor more frequently than adults, but that could equally well be because adults have wider vocabularies, more precise terminology and simply don’t need to use metaphor so often. Frequency isn’t the same as complexity. Research into children’s motor, visuo-spatial, auditory, and cognitive skills all paints the same picture; that it starts simple and gets more complex over time.

concrete to abstract

By ‘abstract’ Spencer appears to have meant the abstraction of rules from concrete examples; the rules of grammar from speech, of algebraic rules from mathematical relationships, the laws of physics and chemistry from empirical observations and so on. Egan’s idea of ‘abstract’ is different – he appears to construe it as meaning ‘intangible’. He claims that children are capable of abstract thought because they have no problem imagining things that don’t exist, giving the example of Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit (p.61). Peter Rabbit certainly isn’t concrete in the sense of actually existing in the real world, but all the concepts children need to comprehend his story are very concrete indeed; they include rabbits, items of clothing, tools, vegetables and gardens. And the ‘abstract’ emotions involved – anger, fear, security – are all ones with which children would be very familiar. Egan isn’t using ‘abstract’ in the same way as Spencer. Egan also claims that children’s ability to understand symbolic relationships means that Spencer was wrong. However, as Egan points out, symbols are ‘arbitrarily connected with what they symbolize’ and the ‘ready grasp of symbols’ is found in ‘children who are exposed to symbols’ which suggests that actually the children’s thinking does start with the concrete (what the symbols represent) and moves towards the abstract (the symbols and their arbitrary connection with what they symbolize). Spencer might have over-egged the pudding with respect to concrete to abstract principle, but I don’t think Egan manages to demonstrate that he was wrong.

known to unknown

Spencer was also insistent that education should start with what children knew – the things that were familiar to them in their own homes and communities. Egan raises several objections to this idea (pp.63-64):

1. “if this is a fundamental principle of human learning, there is no way the process can begin”
2. ‘if novelty – that is things unconnected with what is already known – is the problem … reducing the amount of novelty doesn’t solve the problem”
3. this principle has dumbed down the curriculum and comes close to “contempt for children’s intelligence”
4. “ this is the four-legged fly item … no one’s understanding of the world … expands according to this principle of gradual content association”

With regard to point 1, Spencer clearly wasn’t saying we have to know something in order to know anything else. What he was saying is that trying to get children to learn things that are completely unconnected with what they already know is likely to end in failure.

I can’t see how, in point 2, reducing the amount of novelty doesn’t solve the problem. If I were to attend a lecture delivered in Portuguese about the Higgs’ boson, the amount of novelty involved would be so high (I know only one Portuguese word and little about sub-atomic physics) that I would be likely to learn nothing. If, however, it was a Royal Institution Christmas Lecture in English for a general audience, the amount of novelty would be considerably reduced and I would probably learn a good deal. Exactly how much would depend on my prior knowledge about sub-atomic physics.

I do agree with Egan’s point 3, in the sense that taking this principle to extremes would result in an impoverished curriculum, but that’s a problem with implementation rather than the principle itself.

It’s ironic that Egan describes point 4 as the ‘four-legged fly’ item, since work on brain plasticity suggests that gradual content association, via the formation of new synapses, is precisely the way in which human beings do expand their understanding of the world. If we come across information with massive novel content, we tend to simply ignore it because of the time required to gather the additional information we need in order to make sense of it.

a traditional-liberal education

Egan’s critique of Spencer’s ideas is a pretty comprehensive one. For him, Spencer’s ideas are like the original version of the curate’s egg – not that parts of them are excellent, but that they are totally inedible. Egan says “I have already indicated that I consider the traditional-liberal principles equally as problematic as the progressive beliefs I am criticising” (p.54), but I couldn’t see where he’d actually done so.

A number of times Egan refers with apparent approval to some of the features commonly associated with a traditional-liberal education. He’s clearly uneasy about framing education in utilitarian terms, as Spencer did, but then Spencer was criticising a curriculum that was based on tradition and “the ornamental culture of the leisured class”. In the section entitled “What is wrong with Spencer’s curriculum?” (p.125ff) Egan highlights Spencer’s dismissal of grammar, history, Latin and the ‘useless arts’. In doing so, I think he has again overlooked the situation that Spencer was addressing.

As I understand it, the reason that Greek and Latin were originally considered essential to education was that for centuries in Europe, ancient Greek and Latin texts were the principal source of knowledge, as well as Latin being the lingua franca. From the Greek and Latin texts, you could get a broad understanding of what was known about literature, history, geography, theology, science, mathematics, politics, economics and law. If they understood what worked and what went wrong in Greek and Roman civilisations, boys from well-to-do families – the future movers and shakers – would be less likely to repeat the errors of previous generations. Over time, as contemporary knowledge increased and books were more frequently written in the vernacular, the need to learn Greek and Latin became less important; it persisted often because it was traditional, rather than because it was useful.

I’ve noticed that the loudest cries for reform of the education system in the English-speaking world have come from those with a background in subjects that involve high levels of abstraction; English, history, mathematics, philosophy. Egan’s special interest is in imaginative education. I’ve heard hardly a peep from scientists, geographers or PE teachers. It could be that highly abstracted subjects have been victims of the worst excesses of progressivism – or that in highly abstracted subjects there’s simply more scope for differences of opinion about subject content. I can understand why Egan is wary of utility being the guiding principle for education; it’s too open to exploitation by business and politicians, and education needs to do more than train an efficient workforce. But I’m not entirely clear what Egan wants to see in its place. He appears to see education as primarily for cultural purposes; so we can all participate in what Oakeshott called ‘the conversation of mankind’, a concept mentioned by other new traditionalists, such as Robert Peal and Toby Young. Egan sees a good education as needing to include grammar, Latin and history because they are pieces of the complex image that makes up ‘what we expect in an educated person'(p.160). I can see what he’s getting at, but this guiding principle for education is demonstrably unhelpful. We’ve been arguing about it at least since Spencer’s day, and have yet to reach a consensus.

In my view, education isn’t about a cultural conversation or about utility, although it involves both. But it should be useful. The more people who get a good knowledge and understanding of all aspects how the world the works, the more likely our communities are to achieve a good, sustainable standard of living and decent quality of life. We need our education system to produce people who make the world a better place, not just people who can talk about it.

the curate’s egg, the emperor’s new clothes and Aristotle’s flies: getting it wrong from the beginning

Alongside a recommendation to read Robert Peal’s Progressively Worse, came another to read Kieran Egan’s Getting It Wrong From The Beginning: Our Progressive Inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey and Jean Piaget. Egan’s book is in a different league to Peal’s; it’s scholarly, properly referenced and published by a mainstream publisher not a think-tank. Although it appears to be about Spencer, Dewey and Piaget, Egan’s critique is aimed almost solely at Spencer; Piaget’s ideas are addressed, but Dewey hardly gets a look in. During the first chapter – a historical sketch of Spencer and his ideas – Egan and I got along swimmingly. Before I read this book my knowledge of Spencer would have just about filled a postage stamp (I knew he was a Victorian polymath who coined the term ‘survival of the fittest’) so I found Egan’s account of Spencer’s influence illuminating. But once his analysis of Spencer’s ideas got going, we began to part company.

My first problem with Egan’s analysis was that I felt he was unduly hard on Spencer. There is a sense in which he has to be because he lays at Spencer’s feet the blame for most of the ills of the education systems in the English-speaking world. Spencer is portrayed as someone who dazzled the 19th century public in the UK and America with his apparently brilliant ideas, which were then rapidly discredited towards the end of his life and soon after his death he was forgotten. Yet Spencer, according to Egan, laid the foundation for the progressive ideas that form the basis for the education system in the US and the UK. That poses a problem for Egan because he then has to explain why, if Spencer’s ideas were so bad that academia and the public dismissed them, in education they have not only persisted but flourished in the century since his death.

misleading metaphors

Egan tackles this conundrum by appealing to three metaphors; the curate’s egg, the emperor’s new clothes and Aristotle’s flies. The curate’s egg – ‘good in parts’ – is often used to describe something of variable quality, but Egan refers to the original Punch cartoon in which the curate, faced with a rotten egg for breakfast, tries to be polite to his host the bishop. The emperor’s new clothes require no explanation. In other words, Egan explains the proliferation of Spencer’s educational theories as partly down to deference to someone who was once considered a great thinker, and partly to people continuing to believe something despite the evidence of their own eyes.

Bishop: “I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Mr Jones”; Curate: “Oh, no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!”

Aristotle’s flies

The Aristotle’s flies metaphor does require more explanation. Egan claims “Aristotle’s spells are hard to break. In a careless moment he wrote that flies have four legs. Despite the easy evidence of anyone’s eyes, his magisterial authority ensured that this “fact” was repeated in natural history texts for more than a thousand years” (p.42). In other words, Spencer’s ideas, derived ultimately from Aristotle’s, have, like Aristotle’s, been perpetuated because of his ‘magisterial authority’ – something which Egan claims Spencer lost.

It’s certainly true that untruths can be perpetuated for many years through lazy copying from one text to another. But these are usually untruths that are hard to disprove – the causes of fever or the existence of the Loch Ness monster, or, in Aristotle’s case, the idea that the brain cooled the blood, for example – not untruths that could be dispelled in a few second’s observation by a child capable of counting to six. Aristotle’s alleged ‘careless moment’ caught my attention because ‘legs’ pose a particular challenge for comparative anatomists. Aristotle was interested in comparative anatomy and was a keen and careful observer of nature. It’s unlikely that he would have had such a ‘careless moment’, and much more likely that the error would have been due to a mistranslation.

The challenge of ‘legs’ is that in nature they have a tendency over time to morph into other things – arms in humans and wings in birds for example. Anyone who has observed a housefly for a few seconds will know that houseflies frequently use their first pair of legs for grooming – in other words, as arms. I thought it quite possible that Aristotle categorised the first pair of fly legs as ‘arms’ so I looked for the reference. Egan doesn’t give it but the story about the four-legged fly idea being perpetuated for a millennium is a popular one. In 2005 it appeared in an article in the journal European Molecular Biology Organisation Reportsand was subsequently challenged in 2008 in a zoology blog.

male mayfly

male mayfly

Aristotle’s observation is in a passage on animal locomotion and the word for ‘fly’ – ephemeron – is translated by D’Arcy Thompson as ‘dayfly’ – also commonly known as the mayfly (order Ephemeroptera, named for their short adult life). In mayfly the first pair of legs is enlarged and often held forward off the ground as the males use them for grasping the female during mating. So the fly walks on four legs – the point Aristotle is making. Egan’s book was published in 2002, before this critique was written, but even before the advent of the internet it wouldn’t have been difficult to check Aristotle’s text – in Greek or in translation.

Spencer in context

I felt also that much of Egan’s criticism of Spencer was from the vantage point of hindsight. Spencer was formulating his ideas whilst arguments about germ theory were ongoing, before the publication of On the Origin of Species, before the American Civil war, before all men (never mind women) were permitted to vote in the UK or the US, before state education was implemented in England, and a century before the discovery of the structure of DNA. His ideas were widely criticised by his contemporaries, but that doesn’t mean he was wrong about everything.

It’s also important to set Spencer’s educational ideas in context. He was writing in an era when mass education systems were in their infancy and schools were often significantly under-resourced. Textbooks and exercise books were unaffordable not just for most families, but for many schools. Consequently schools frequently resorted to the age-old practice of getting children to memorise, not just the alphabet and multiplication tables, but everything they were taught. Text committed to memory could be the only access to books that many people might get during their lifetime. If the children didn’t have books they couldn’t take material home to learn so had to do it in school. Memorisation takes time, so teachers were faced with a time constraint and a dilemma – whether to prioritise remembering or explaining. Not surprisingly, memorisation tended to win, because understanding can always come later. Consequently, many children could recite a lot of text, but hadn’t got a clue what it meant. For many, having at least learned to read and write at school, their education actually began after they left school and had earned enough money to buy books themselves or could borrow them from libraries. This is the rote learning referred to as ‘vicious’ by early progressive educators.

The sudden demand for teachers when mass education systems were first rolled out meant that schools had to get whatever teachers they could. Many had experience but no training and would simply expect children from very different backgrounds to those they had previously taught to learn the same material, such as reciting the grammatical rules of standard English when the children knew only their local dialect with different pronunciation, vocabulary and grammatical structure. For children in other parts of the UK it was literally a different language. The history of England, with its list of Kings and Queens was essentially meaningless to children whose only prior access to their nation’s history was a few stories passed down orally.

This was why Spencer placed so much emphasis on the principles of simple to complex, concrete to abstract and known to unknown. Without those starting points, many children’s experience of education was one of bobbing about in a sea of incomprehension and getting more lost as time went by – and Spencer was thinking of middle-class children, not working-class ones for whom the challenge would have been greater. The problem with Spencer’s ideas was that they were extended beyond what George Kelly calls their range of convenience; they were taken to unnecessary extremes that were indeed at risk of insulting children’s intelligence.

In the next post, I take a more detailed look at Egan’s critique of Spencer’s ideas.

systems complexity: what we learn in school

More years ago than I care to remember I taught, briefly, at a parent controlled school – along the lines of Michael Gove’s free schools, but in those days parents had to stump up the cash themselves. One of my first tasks was to draft a curriculum. The experience stood me in good stead when I found myself educating both my children at home.

What had concerned me most about my children’s education at school was not so much what they knew or didn’t know but what they understood about the world they live in. As my eldest put it; “We were taught about the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans, but I never understood why, or what they had to do with each other.”

After some trial-and-error (the standard school timetable was a non-starter) we adopted the history of the universe as a narrative spine for our learning. We started with the Big Bang and proceeded from there. We made a timeline of the universe that stretched the length of the house. The periodic table filled one wall of our dining room and the rest of our home was festooned with posters from the excellent Edugraphics. We found out what life must have been like for the young Mendeleev and for the inhabitants of Darmstadt during WWII. We studied evolution and creation stories, unearthed skulls with Leakey and watched our distant ancestors farm and develop city-states. My youngest returned to school just after the fall of the Roman Empire. I must remember to let him know what happened next.

Few teachers would think of introducing an eight year-old with special educational needs to sub-atomic theory, but for my son, that knowledge made sense of everything. Once you have a basic deep structure understanding of the connection between energy and matter, how elements interact, what DNA does, how brains process information and how people tend to behave, you have a broad framework into which all new surface features of knowledge fit. So new knowledge, whatever it is, makes sense.

But the school curriculum (in the UK at least) tends not to start from first principles. It usually begins – understandably and justifiably – with building on young children’s existing knowledge (My Family, Our Town, sand and water play). It’s later dominated by the requirements of academia. What undergraduates are required to know largely determines the content of A level courses, which in turn determines what is learned at GCSE level and so on. Add to the mix what politicians or other interested parties believe children should learn and you have a curriculum that is derived neither from the deep structure of knowledge nor from how children learn.

Using deep structure as a starting point has a number of advantages. It enables you to understand:

-how everything is related to everything else (however distantly)
-how skills and knowledge are related
-the importance and relevance of different skills and different types of knowledge

Schools have always had a problem with non-academic skills like plumbing or painting and decorating, partly because they are non-academic skills but also because of their social status. Because fewer people have the skills needed to become lawyers or doctors, these professions command high salaries and high status. Schools tend to measure their success by the number of their graduates who go into high status professions. Not on how happy those graduates are with their work or how useful they are to their communities.

We are frequently reminded that our knowledge about the world is growing at an exponential rate and that specialists can’t hope to keep on top of their own field, never mind others. This has led to increasing specialization and as a consequence there is pressure on the school curriculum to become fragmented and unconnected. Increased specalisation might be inevitable but it doesn’t follow that economists don’t need to understand human behaviour, or that doctors don’t need to grasp the principles of nutrition or that journalists don’t need to know how the brain works. Nor that it’s OK for politicians to understand only politics and not the principles that link everything together.