seven myths about education: traditional subjects

In Seven Myths about Education, Daisy Christodoulou refers to the importance of ‘subjects’ and clearly doesn’t think much of cross-curricular projects. In the chapter on myth 5 ‘we should teach transferable skills’ she cites Daniel Willingham pointing out that the human brain isn’t like a calculator that can perform the same operations on any data. Willingham must be referring to higher-level information-processing because Anderson’s model of cognition makes it clear that at lower levels the brain is like a calculator and does perform essentially the same operations on any data; that’s Anderson’s point. Willingham’s point is that skills and knowledge are interdependent; you can’t acquire skills in the absence of knowledge and skills are often subject-specific and depend on the type of knowledge involved.

Daisy dislikes cross-curricular projects because students are unlikely to have the requisite prior knowledge from across several knowledge domains, are often expected to behave like experts when they are novices and get distracted by peripheral tasks. I would suggest those problems are indicators of poor project design rather than problems with cross-curricular work per se. Instead, Daisy would prefer teachers to stick to traditional subject areas.

traditional subjects

Daisy refers several times to traditional subjects, traditional bodies of knowledge and traditional education. The clearest explanation of what she means is on pp.117-119, when discussing the breadth and depth of the curriculum;

For many of the theorists we looked at, subject disciplines were themselves artificial inventions designed to enforce Victorian middle-class values … They may well be human inventions, but they are very useful … because they provide a practical way of teaching … important concepts …. The sentence in English, the place value in mathematics, energy in physics; in each case subjects provide a useful framework for teaching the concept.”

It’s worth considering how the subject disciplines the theorists complained about came into being. At the end of the 18th century, a well-educated, well-read person could have just about kept abreast of most advances in human knowledge. By the end of the 19th century that would have been impossible. The exponential growth of knowledge made increasing specialisation necessary; the names of many specialist occupations including the term ‘scientist’ were coined the 19th century. By the end of the 20th century, knowledge domains/subjects existed that hadn’t even been thought of 200 years earlier.

It makes sense for academic researchers to specialise and for secondary schools to employ teachers who are subject specialists because it’s essential to have good knowledge of a subject if you’re researching it or teaching it. The subject areas taught in secondary schools have been determined largely by the prior knowledge universities require from undergraduates. That determines A level content, which in turn determines GCSE content, which in turn determines what’s taught at earlier stages in school. That model also makes sense; if universities don’t know what’s essential in a knowledge domain, no one does.

The problem for schools is that they can’t teach everything, so someone has to decide on the subjects and subject content that’s included in the curriculum. The critics Daisy cites question traditional subject areas on the grounds that they reflect the interests of a small group of people with high social prestige (p.110-111).

criteria for the curriculum

Daisy doesn’t buy the idea that subject areas represent the interests of a social elite, but she does suggest an alternative criterion for curriculum content. Essentially, this is frequency of citation. In relation to the breadth of the curriculum, she adopts the principle espoused by ED Hirsch (and Daniel Willingham, Robert Peal and Toby Young), of what writers of “broadsheet newspapers and intelligent books” (p.116) assume their readers will know. The writers in question are exemplified by those contributing to the “Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and so on” (Willingham p.47). Toby Young suggests a UK equivalent – “Times leader writers and heavyweight political commentators” (Young p.34). Although this criterion for the curriculum is better than nothing, its limitations are obvious. The curriculum would be determined by what authors, editors and publishers knew about or thought was important. If there were subject areas crucial to human life that they didn’t know about, ignored or deliberately avoided, the next generation would be sunk.

When it comes to the depth of the curriculum, Daisy quotes Willingham; “cognitive science leads to the rather obvious conclusion that students must learn the concepts that come up again and again – the unifying ideas of each discipline” (Willingham p.48). My guess is that Willingham describes the ‘unifying ideas of each discipline’ as ‘concepts that come up again and again’ to avoid going into unnecessary detail about the deep structure of knowledge domains; he makes a clear distinction between the criteria for the breadth and depth of the curriculum in his book. But his choice of wording, if taken out of context, could give the impression that the unifying ideas of each discipline are the concepts that come up again and again in “broadsheet newspapers and intelligent books”.

One problem with the unifying ideas of each discipline is that they don’t always come up again and again. They certainly encompass “the sentence in English, place value in mathematics, energy in physics”, but sometimes the unifying ideas involve deep structure and schemata taken for granted by experts but not often made explicit, particularly to school students.

Daisy points out, rightly, that neither ‘powerful knowledge’ nor ‘high culture’ are owned by a particular social class or culture (p.118). But she apparently fails to see that using cultural references as a criterion for what’s taught in schools could still result in the content of the curriculum being determined by a small, powerful social group; exactly what the traditional subject critics and Daisy herself complain about, though they are referring to different groups.

dead white males

This drawback is illustrated by Willingham’s observation that using the cultural references criterion means “we may still be distressed that much of what writers assume their readers know seems to be touchstones of the culture of dead white males” (p.116). Toby Young turns them into ‘dead white, European males’ (Young p.34, my emphasis).

What advocates of the cultural references model for the curriculum appear to have overlooked is that the dead white males’ domination of cultural references is a direct result of the long period during which European nations colonised the rest of the world. This colonisation (or ‘trade’ depending on your perspective) resulted in Europe becoming wealthy enough to fund many white males (and some females) engaged in the pursuit of knowledge or in creating works of art. What also tends to be forgotten is that the foundation for their knowledge originated with males (and females) who were non-whites and non-Europeans living long before the Renaissance. The dead white guys would have had an even better foundation for their work if people of various ethnic origins hadn’t managed to destroy the library at Alexandria (and a renowned female scholar). The cognitive bias that edits out non-European and non-male contributions to knowledge is also evident in the US and UK versions of the Core Knowledge sequence.

Core Knowledge sequence

Determining the content of the curriculum by the use of cultural references has some coherence, but cultural references don’t necessarily reflect the deep structure of knowledge. Daisy comments favourably on ED Hirsch’s Core Knowledge sequence (p.121). She observes that “The history curriculum is designed to be coherent and cumulative… pupils start in first grade studying the first American peoples, they progress up to the present day, which they reach in the eighth grade. World history runs alongside this, beginning with the Ancient Greeks and progressing to industrialism, the French revolution and Latin American independence movements.”

Hirsch’s Core Knowledge sequence might encompass considerably more factual knowledge than the English national curriculum, but the example Daisy cites clearly leaves some questions unanswered. How did the first American peoples get to America and why did they go there? Who lived in Europe (and other continents) before the Ancient Greeks and why are the Ancient Greeks important? Obviously the further back we go, the less reliable evidence there is, but we know enough about early history and pre-history to be able to develop a reasonably reliable overview of what happened. It’s an overview that clearly demonstrates that the natural environment often had a more significant role than human culture in shaping history. And one that shows that ‘dead white males’ are considerably less important than they appear if the curriculum is derived from cultural references originating in the English-speaking world. Similar caveats apply to the UK equivalent of the Core Knowledge sequence published by Civitas, the one that recommends children in year 1 being taught about the Glorious Revolution and the significance of Robert Walpole.

It’s worth noting that few of the advocates of curriculum content derived from cultural references are scientists; Willingham is, but his background is in human cognition, not chemistry, biology, geology or geography. I think there’s a real risk of overlooking the role that geographical features, climate, minerals, plants and animals have played in human history, and of developing a curriculum that’s so Anglo-centric and culturally focused it’s not going to equip students to tackle the very concrete problems the world is currently facing. Ironically, Daisy and others are recommending that students acquire a strongly socially-constructed body of knowledge, rather than a body of knowledge determined by what’s out there in the real world.

knowledge itself

Michael Young, quoted by Daisy, aptly sums up the difference:

Although we cannot deny the sociality of all forms of knowledge, certain forms of knowledge which I find useful to refer to as powerful knowledge and are often equated with ‘knowledge itself’, have properties that are emergent from and not wholly dependent on their social and historical origins.” (p.118)

Most knowledge domains are pretty firmly grounded in the real world, which means that the knowledge itself has a coherent structure reflecting the real world and therefore, as Michael Young points out, it has emergent properties of its own, regardless of how we perceive or construct it.

So what criteria should we use for the curriculum? Generally, academics and specialist teachers have a good grasp of the unifying principles of their field – the ‘knowledge itself’. So their input would be essential. But other groups have an interest in the curriculum; notably the communities who fund and benefit from the education system and those involved on a day-to-day basis – teachers, parents and students. 100% consensus on a criterion is unlikely, but the outcome might not be any worse than the constant tinkering with the curriculum by government over the past three decades.

why subjects?

‘Subjects’ are certainly a convenient way of arranging our knowledge and they do enable a focus on the deep structure of a specific knowledge domain. But the real world, from which we get our knowledge, isn’t divided neatly into subject areas, it’s an interconnected whole. ‘Subjects’ are facets of knowledge about a world that in reality is highly integrated and interconnected. The problem with teaching along traditional subject area lines is that students are very likely to end up with a fragmented view of how the real world functions, and to miss important connections. Any given subject area might be internally coherent, but there’s often no apparent connection between subject areas, so the curriculum as a whole just doesn’t make sense to students. How does history relate to chemistry or RE to geography? It’s difficult to tell while you are being educated along ‘subject’ lines.

Elsewhere I’ve suggested that what might make sense would be a chronological narrative spine for the curriculum. Learning about the Big Bang, the formation of galaxies, elements, minerals, the atmosphere and supercontinents through the origins of life to early human groups, hunter-gatherer migration, agricultural settlement, the development of cities and so on, makes sense of knowledge that would otherwise be fragmented. And it provides a unifying, overarching framework for any knowledge acquired in the future.

Adopting a chronological curriculum would mean an initial focus on sciences and physical geography; the humanities and the arts wouldn’t be relevant until later for obvious reasons. It wouldn’t preclude simultaneously studying languages, mathematics, music or PE of course – I’m not suggesting a chronological curriculum ‘first and only’ – but a chronological framework would make sense of the curriculum as a whole.

It could also bridge the gap between so-called ‘academic’ and ‘vocational’ subjects. In a consumer society, it’s easy to lose sight of the importance of knowledge about food, water, fuel and infrastructure. But someone has to have that knowledge and our survival and quality of life are dependent on how good their knowledge is and how well they apply it. An awareness of how the need for food, water and fuel has driven human history and how technological solutions have been developed to deal with problems might serve to narrow the academic/vocational divide in a way that results in communities having a better collective understanding of how the real world works.

the curriculum in context

I can understand why Daisy is unimpressed by the idea that skills can be learned in the absence of knowledge or that skills are generic and completely transferable across knowledge domains. You can’t get to the skills at the top of Bloom’s taxonomy by bypassing the foundation level – knowledge. Having said that, I think Daisy’s criteria for the curriculum overlook some important points.

First, although I agree that subjects provide a useful framework for teaching concepts, the real world isn’t neatly divided up into subject areas. Teaching as if it is means it’s not only students who are likely to get a fragmented view of the world, but newspaper columnists, authors and policy-makers might too – with potentially disastrous consequences for all of us. It doesn’t follow that students need to be taught skills that allegedly transfer across all subjects, but they do need to know how subject areas fit together.

Second, although we can never eliminate subjectivity from knowledge, we can minimise it. Most knowledge domains reflect the real world accurately enough for us to be able to put them to good, practical use on a day-to-day basis. It doesn’t follow that all knowledge consists of verified facts or that students will grasp the unifying principles of a knowledge domains by learning thousands of facts. Students need to learn about the deep structure of knowledge domains and how the evidence for the facts they encompass has been evaluated.

Lastly, cultural references are an inadequate criterion for determining the breadth of the curriculum. Cultural references form exactly the sort of socially constructed framework that critics of traditional subject areas complain about. Most knowledge domains are firmly grounded in the real world and the knowledge itself, despite its inherent subjectivity, provides a much more valid and reliable criterion for deciding what students should know that what people are writing about. Knowledge about cultural references might enable students to participate in what Michael Oakeshott called the ‘conversation of mankind’, but life doesn’t consist only of a conversation – at whatever level you understand the term. For most people, even in the developed world, life is just as much about survival and quality of life, and in order to optimise our chances of both, we need to know as much as possible about how the world functions, not just what a small group of people are saying about it.

In my next post, hopefully the final one about Seven Myths, I plan to summarise why I think it’s so important to understand what Daisy and those who support her model of educational reform are saying.


Peal, R (2014). Progressively Worse: The Burden of Bad Ideas in British Schools. Civitas.
Willingham, D (2009). Why don’t students like school?. Jossey-Bass.
Young, T (2014). Prisoners of the Blob. Civitas.

classical liberal education: the downside

You might be wondering why I’m making such a big deal out of Robert Peal’s arguments. After all, as he points out in his responses to critics, opinions are important and categorisation aids discussion. If Robert were simply voicing his personal opinion to get a discussion going, I probably wouldn’t have commented on his book at all. But he’s not just doing that. Progressively Worse was written in his capacity as Education Research Fellow with the think tank Civitas. The book is published by Civitas and the front cover carries a personal endorsement from the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove. Civitas also published Toby Young’s pamphlet Prisoners of the Blob. Young is co-founder of the West London Free School apparently the first free school in the country to sign a funding agreement with the said Secretary of State. Civitas have published a UK version of ED Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Sequence and a series of textbooks and teaching resources. Civitas also runs a network of schools and is described by Core Knowledge UK (‘the official partnership in the UK’ – presumably with the Core Knowledge Foundation) as ‘an educational charity’. And that’s what bothers me.

a classical liberal education

As far as I can gather, a relatively small group of people share an opinion that what the English education system needs is a return to a Classical Liberal Education. I experienced one of these myself, although I wasn’t aware of it at the time. (The ‘classical liberal’ label, that is. I was aware of the education). ‘Classical liberal’, like ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’, is something of a folk category – a label for a loosely defined group of concepts that’s useful for signposting during conversation. But, as I hope I demonstrated in my previous post, folk classifications aren’t generally up to tasks that require more exact specifications, like making comparisons between individual schools, or designing a classical liberal curriculum, for example. For tasks like that, you need a more precise definition.

In an article in The Telegraph in 2013, Toby Young says the head of the West London Free School asked the governors for “a relatively short statement of what’s meant by a Classical Liberal Education that could be included in the Staff Handbook“. Young then says “This is a phrase we’ve often bandied about, but never tried to define before – at least, not beyond shorthand phrases like ‘the best that’s been thought and said’”.

That’s a revealing remark. It suggests that the governors of a school apparently offering a classical liberal education hadn’t started with the question “What’s the purpose of education?” or “What do our students need to know and why?” but “What should be included in a classical liberal education?” without attempting to actually define it. The governors eventually came up with the ‘relatively short statement’ requested. Young quotes it in his article.

The relatively short statement looks relatively long to me (almost 800 words). (The statement has been shortened since this post was first published.) There’s a lot of ‘we mean this, but not that’. A quotation from Daniel Willingham is juxtaposed with an extract from an essay by Bertrand Russell. The necessity for all this explanation suggests that a classical liberal education isn’t easy to define and maybe it would have been better to have side-stepped the definition completely and simply pointed interested parties to a summary of the school curriculum so they could assess it for themselves.

the conversation of mankind

The difficulty in defining a classical liberal education appears to revolve around a core sticking point; what constitutes “the best and most important work in both the humanities and the sciences.” This criterion is derived from a phrase in essay on culture by Matthew Arnold, the 19th century poet, who was also a school inspector. Arnold summarises culture as the ‘best which has been thought and said’. Few people are actually going to disagree with that as a broad aim for what should be taught in schools, but as both Robert Peal and the West London Free School point out, deciding what constitutes ‘the best and most important work’ is not a straightforward task, especially where the humanities are concerned.

The West London Free School statement concludes that what should be in the curriculum is “the background knowledge taken for granted by writers who address the intellectually engaged layman – the shared frames of reference for public discourse in modern liberal democracies”. Discourse, discussion and conversation are frequently mentioned by advocates of a classical liberal education. Clearly there are good reasons why it’s desirable for everyone to have “the background knowledge taken for granted by writers who address the intellectually engaged layman”. Whether all writers take the same background knowledge for granted, and who they consider to be an ‘intellectually engaged layman’ is another matter. This focus on the communication of ideas appears to originate in Michael Oakeshott’s reference to ‘the conversation of mankind’ (Peal, p. 209).

Earlier this week by chance I came across a televised seminar hosted by Nuffield College Oxford, on the results of the recent European elections. The seminar was the first of its kind, an experiment, and one in my view that’s well worth repeating. I learned more about European politics in two hours than I have in the past two years. One recurring theme in the discussion was the ‘rise of the meritocracy’, a term coined in the 1950s by Michael Young, Toby Young’s father. Vernon Bogdanor, whose former students include David Cameron and Toby Young, suggested that one of the reasons why UKIP and other anti-establishment parties were so successful in the recent election was because they were voted for by people who felt they’d been completely ignored by the meritocracy. The meritocracy are those who have benefited from higher education and whose decisions shape not only the knowledge that writers take for granted, but most people’s standard of living and quality of life.

Clearly, there are good reasons why everyone should be able to participate in the ‘conversation of mankind’. But human lives do not consist solely of engaging “fruitfully in conversation and debate – not just about contemporary issues, but also about the universal questions that have been troubling mankind throughout history”, as the West London Free School statement puts it. In order for some people to earn their living conversing and debating as philosophers, academics, politicians or writers, other people have to produce food, manufacture goods and maintain infrastructure. And they need to ensure that those things are done efficiently. It’s only through their doing so that the economy has enough surplus capacity to support philosophers, academics, politicians and writers, or indeed an education system.

enemies of promise

Before I’m dismissed as one of Michael Gove’s ‘Marxist enemies of promise’ I would point out that I’m not suggesting the people who grow food, manufacture goods or maintain an infrastructure don’t need to engage in important conversations and debates. Nor do I mean they don’t need a good education, or that education is only a preparation for getting a job. What I do mean is that those who do most of the conversing and debating should be well aware of what those involved in production, manufacturing and maintenance are up against.

The people who get their hands dirty, work in all weathers, use dangerous materials, and put their lives at risk on a daily basis are working at the interface between human society and the natural world. The natural world isn’t interested in having a conversation, it’s uncompromisingly and unforgivingly getting on with being the natural world. In order to work with it, we all – philosophers, academics, politicians and writers included – need to have a good grasp of how it functions. If we don’t, the conversation of mankind will be pretty limited.

a coherent curriculum

Broadly speaking, the content of the national curriculum whether informal (prior to 1988) or formal (since 1988) has been based on knowledge ‘trickling down’ from university subject areas. The content of undergraduate courses determines the content of A levels, which in turn informs GCSE content, which in turn informs what younger children are taught. The main problem with a subject-based curriculum is that isn’t integrated across subject areas. This has implications for students’ understanding of fundamental concepts that straddle several knowledge domains, and it’s this lack of understanding that I suspect has led to the recent emphasis in the national curriculum on knowledge-related ‘skills’ rather than on knowledge itself. I understand why there are calls for a return to a knowledge-based curriculum.

My concern is that framing the alternative in terms of participation in conversation and debate means that what we need to know in order to manage the sometimes nasty, sometimes messy business of maintaining a decent quality of life, will be marginalised. Using cultural references as a criterion means that the resulting curriculum might also lack coherence, since it won’t be based on the deep structure of knowledge, but on the references people make to specific items of knowledge, which isn’t the same thing. And if the curriculum isn’t coherent, that will impact on the sense it makes for students.

not making sense

For example, despite its lengthy explanation of classical liberal education, the West London Free School offers the national curriculum with Latin added, which to me doesn’t look like the same thing at all.

The Michaela Community School’s educational vision is expressed in the Matthew Arnold quote. The school claims to be inspired by Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Sequence and emphasises the importance of cross-curricular links. But it then claims Maths and English are ‘fundamental to all other learning’ (are they?) and tackles History and English, but not other subjects, chronologically. I could find little evidence of a coherent underlying rationale.

I hoped that The Curriculum Centre might shed some light on the matter with its Future Curriculum™, but no joy. The Curriculum Centre is also inspired by Hirsch (and Michael Young) and is critical of the national curriculum but remarkably coy, for a curriculum centre, about what it advocates instead.

Civitas in contrast, has done a lot of work on the cultural references curriculum. It has prepared a UK version of Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Sequence for Years 1-6. Although I can see why schools might have found the UK Core Knowledge Sequence useful, like Hirsch’s original it doesn’t seem especially coherent. For example, Year 1 History begins with the pre-history of Britain in that it covers the Ice Age, Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age, which makes internal sense but completely overlooks the formation of the earth itself, the formation and break up of supercontinents and the migration of early humans, an excellent opportunity to promote an understanding of how physics, chemistry, biology, geography and history are related.

Then, bizarrely, we skip to ‘Kings and Queens’ and a list of disconnected ‘historic events’ from the Magna Carta to the Glorious Revolution, which it’s unlikely anyone, never mind children in Year 1, will be able to properly comprehend without knowing how those events emerged from events that preceded them. Even more bizarrely, we then skip to Prime Ministers (Robert Walpole is singled out for mention) and Symbols and Figures; the Union Jack, Buckingham Palace, 10 Downing Street and the Houses of Parliament.

It’s important that children know what these cultural references refer to, but there’s no reason why teachers shouldn’t just explain them briefly if they happen to be mentioned, rather than to include them, out of context, in the core curriculum. Not only is this piecemeal approach to curriculum design based on what one person or group of people consider to be important cultural references, but it’s also unlikely to make sense to children without the requisite pre-existing knowledge.

If, by contrast, we frame the curriculum in terms of students having a good understanding of how the world functions, from sub-atomic particles upwards, our educational framework will be much better integrated. And what needs to be included in the humanities part of the curriculum (if the curriculum must be divided in that way) will no longer be solely a matter of value judgments. It would mean that the criteria for deciding which periods of history are important for students to study, in what order and which books and plays and poems they focus on, and in what order, would be based on what would best help them understand the world they live in, rather than just understanding what “Times leader writers, heavyweight political commentators and authors of serious books(Young, p.34) have to say.

A chronological curriculum, such as the one I used with my own children (I refer to it in more detail here and here) is not only coherent, but it makes sense of everything. The only drawback is that if teachers are subject specialists, a bit of work might be required on integrating the curriculum across subject areas. The curriculum’s narrative spine will consist initially of physics, followed by chemistry, then biology, geology and geography – the humanities are relative latecomers in the earth’s history. That doesn’t mean children can’t learn to read until they’ve reached the point where writing was invented, or they can’t be taught geometry until they’ve covered the ancient Greeks. What it does mean that simultaneously studying the American Civil war in History, Shakespeare in English, the Renaissance in Art and polyphony in Music, alongside Linnaeus and Tim Burners-Lee (sic) in Science in Year 6 as the UK Core Knowledge Sequence advocates means that most of the contextual significance of all those things is lost.

It’s clear from Robert Peal’s role, his association with Civitas and his endorsement by Michael Gove, that Progressively Worse isn’t just expounding his personal opinion. Civitas claims “our research seeks out an objective view of standards of education in Britain”. If what Robert presents in his book is what Civitas or, more worryingly, the DfE consider to be an ‘objective view’ of education and that view is influencing educational policy in general and the development of a curriculum in particular, the quality of education in English schools in the next fifty years is unlikely to get progressively better.

a tale of two Blobs

The think-tank Civitas has just published a 53-page pamphlet written by Toby Young and entitled ‘Prisoners of The Blob’. ‘The Blob’ for the uninitiated, is the name applied by the UK’s Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, to ‘leaders of the teaching unions, local authority officials, academic experts and university education departments’ described by Young as ‘opponents of educational reform’. The name’s not original. Young says it was coined by William J Bennett, a former US Education Secretary; it was also used by Chris Woodhead, first Chief Inspector of Ofsted in his book Class War.

It’s difficult to tell whether ‘The Blob’ is actually an amorphous fog-like mass whose members embrace an identical approach to education as Young claims, or whether such a diverse range of people espouse such a diverse range of views that it’s difficult for people who would like life to be nice and straightforward to understand all the differences.

Young says;

They all believe that skills like ‘problem-solving’ and ‘critical thinking’ are more important than subject knowledge; that education should be ‘child-centred’ rather than ‘didactic’ or ‘teacher-led’; that ‘group work’ and ‘independent learning’ are superior to ‘direct instruction’; that the way to interest children in a subject is to make it ‘relevant’; that ‘rote-learning’ and ‘regurgitating facts’ is bad, along with discipline, hierarchy, routine and anything else that involves treating the teacher as an authority figure. The list goes on.” (p.3)

It’s obvious that this is a literary device rather than a scientific analysis, but that’s what bothers me about it.

Initially, I had some sympathy with the advocates of ‘educational reform’. The national curriculum had a distinctly woolly appearance in places, enforced group-work and being required to imagine how historical figures must have felt drove my children to distraction, and the approach to behaviour management at their school seemed incoherent. So when I started to come across references to educational reform based on evidence, the importance of knowledge and skills being domain-specific, I was relieved. When I found that applying findings from cognitive science to education was being advocated, I got quite excited.

My excitement was short-lived. I had imagined that a community of researchers had been busily applying cognitive science findings to education, that the literatures on learning and expertise were being thoroughly mined and that an evidence-based route-map was beginning to emerge. Instead, I kept finding references to the same small group of people.

Most fields of discourse are dominated by a few individuals. Usually they are researchers responsible for significant findings or major theories. A new or specialist field might be dominated by only two or three people. The difference here is that education straddles many different fields of discourse (biology, psychology sociology, philosophy and politics, plus a range of subject areas) so I found it a bit odd that the same handful of names kept cropping up. I would have expected a major reform of the education system to have had a wider evidence base.

Evaluating the evidence

And then there was the evidence itself. I might be looking in the wrong place, but so far, although I’ve found a few references, I’ve uncovered no attempts by proponents of educational reform to evaluate the evidence they cite.

A major flaw in human thinking is confirmation bias. To represent a particular set of ideas, we develop a mental schema. Every time we encounter the same set of ideas, the neural network that carries the schema is activated. The more it’s activated, the more readily it’s activated in future. This means that any configuration of ideas that contradicts a pre-existing schema, has, almost literally, to swim against the electromagnetic tide. It’s going to take a good few reiterations of the new idea set before a strongly embedded pre-existing schema is likely to be overridden by a new one. Consequently we tend to favour evidence that confirms our existing views, and find it difficult to see things in a different way.

The best way we’ve found to counteract confirmation bias in the way we evaluate evidence is through hypothesis testing. Essentially you come up with a hypothesis and then try to disprove it. If you can’t, it doesn’t mean your hypothesis is right, it just means you can’t yet rule it out. Hypothesis testing as such is mainly used in the sciences, but the same principle underlies formal debating, the adversarial approach in courts of law, and having an opposition to government in parliament. The last two examples are often viewed as needlessly combative, when actually their job is to spot flaws in what other people are saying. How well they do that job is another matter.

It’s impossible to tell at first glance whether a small number of researchers have made a breakthrough in education theory, or whether their work is simply being cited to affirm a set of beliefs. My suspicion that it might be the latter was strengthened when I checked out the evidence.

The evidence

John Hattie conducted a meta-anlaysis of over 800 studies of student achievement. My immediate thought when I came across his work was of the well-documented problems associated with meta-analyses. Hattie does discuss these, but I’m not convinced he disposed of one key issue; the garbage-in-garbage-out problem. A major difficulty with meta-analyses is ensuring that all the studies involved use the same definitions for the constructs they are measuring; and I couldn’t find a discussion of what Hattie (or other researchers) mean by ‘achievement’. I assume that Hattie uses test scores as a proxy measure of achievement. This is fine if you think the job of schools is to ensure that children learn what somebody has decided they should learn. But that assumption poses problems. One is who determines what students should learn. Another is what happens to students who, for whatever reason, can’t learn at the same rate as the majority. And a third is how the achievement measured in Hattie’s study maps on to achievement in later life. What’s noticeable about the biographies of many ‘great thinkers’ – Darwin and Einstein are prominent examples – is how many of them didn’t do very well in school. It doesn’t follow that Hattie is wrong – Darwin and Einstein might have been even greater thinkers if their schools had adopted his recommendations – but it’s an outcome Hattie doesn’t appear to address.

Siegfreid Engelmann and Wesley C Becker developed a system called Direct Instruction System for Teaching Arithmetic and Reading (DISTAR) that was shown to be effective in Project Follow-Through – a evaluation of a number of educational approaches in the US education system over a 30 year period starting in the 1960s. There’s little doubt that Direct Instruction is more effective than many other systems at raising academic achievement and self-esteem. The problem is, again, who decides what students learn, what happens to students who don’t benefit as much as others, and what’s meant by ‘achievement’.

ED Hirsch developed the Core Knowledge sequence – essentially an off-the-shelf curriculum that’s been adapted for the UK and is available from Civitas. The US Core Knowledge sequence has a pretty obvious underlying rationale even if some might question its stance on some points. The same can’t be said of the UK version. Compare, for example, the content of US Grade 1 History and Geography with that of the UK version for Year 1. The US version includes Early People and Civilisations and the History of World Religion – all important for understanding how human geography and cultures have developed over time. The UK version focuses on British Pre-history and History (with an emphasis on the importance of literacy) followed by Kings and Queens, Prime ministers then Symbols and figures – namely the Union Jack, Buckingham Palace, 10 Downing Street and the Houses of Parliament – despite the fact that few children in Y1 are likely to understand how or why these people or symbols came to be important. Although the strands of world history and British history are broadly chronological, Y4s study Ancient Rome alongside the Stuarts, and Y6s the American Civil War potentially before the Industrial Revolution.

Daniel Willingham is a cognitive psychologist and the author of Why don’t students like school? A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom and When can you trust the experts? How to tell good science from bad in education. He also writes for a column in American Educator magazine. I found Willingham informative on cognitive psychology. However, I felt his view of education was a rather narrow one. There’s nothing wrong with applying cognitive psychology to how teachers teach the curriculum in schools – it’s just that learning and education involve considerably more than that.

Kirschner, Sweller and Clark have written several papers about the limitations of working memory and its implications for education. In my view, their analysis has three key weaknesses; they arbitrarily lump together a range of education methods as if they were essentially the same, they base their theory on an outdated and incomplete model of memory, and they conclude that only one teaching approach is effective – explicit, direct instruction – ignoring the fact that knowledge comes in different forms.


I agree with some of the points made by the reformers:
• I agree with the idea of evidence-based education – the more evidence the better, in my view.
• I have no problem with children being taught knowledge. I don’t subscribe to a constructivist view of education – in the sense that we each develop a unique understanding of the world and everybody’s worldview is as valid as everybody else’s – although cognitive science has shown that everybody’s construction of knowledge is unique. We know that some knowledge is more valid and/or more reliable than other knowledge and we’ve developed some quite sophisticated ways of figuring out what’s more certain and what’s less certain.
• The application of findings from cognitive science to education is long overdue.
• I have no problem with direct instruction (as distinct from Direct Instruction) per se.

However, some of what I read gave me cause for concern:
• The evidence-base presented by the reformers is limited and parts of it are weak and flawed. It’s vital to evaluate evidence, not just to cite evidence that at face-value appears to support what you already think. And a body of evidence isn’t a unitary thing; some parts of it can be sound whilst other parts are distinctly dodgy. It’s important to be able to sift through it and weigh up the pros and cons. Ignoring contradictory evidence can be catastrophic.
• Knowledge, likewise, isn’t a unitary thing; it can vary in terms of validity and reliability.
• The evidence from cognitive science also needs to be evaluated. It isn’t OK to assume that just because cognitive scientists say something it must be right; cognitive scientists certainly don’t do that. Being able to evaluate cognitive science might entail learning a fair bit about cognitive science first.
• Direct instruction, like any other educational method, is appropriate for acquiring some types of knowledge. It isn’t appropriate for acquiring all types of knowledge. The problem with approaches such as discovery learning and child-led learning is not that there’s anything inherently wrong with the approaches themselves, but that they’re not suitable for acquiring all types of knowledge.

What has struck me most forcibly about my exploration of the evidence cited by the education reformers is that, although I agree with some of the reformers’ reservations about what’s been termed ‘minimal instruction’ approaches to education, the reformers appear to be ignoring their own advice. They don’t have extensive knowledge of the relevant subject areas, they don’t evaluate the relevant evidence, and the direct instruction framework they are advocating – certainly the one Civitas is advocating – doesn’t appear to have a structure derived from the relevant knowledge domains.

Rather than a rational, evidence-based approach to education, the ‘educational reform’ movement has all the hallmarks of a belief system that’s using evidence selectively to support its cause; and that’s what worries me. This new Blob is beginning to look suspiciously like the old one.