Kieran Egan’s “The educated mind” 2

The second post in a two-part review of Kieran Egan’s book The Educated Mind: How Cognitive Tools Shape our Understanding.

For Egan, a key point in the historical development of understanding was the introduction by the Greeks of a fully alphabetic representation of language – it included symbols for vowels as well as consonants. He points out that being able to represent speech accurately in writing gives people a better understanding of how they use language and therefore of the concepts that language represents. Egan attributes the flowering of Greek reasoning and knowledge to their alphabet “from which all alphabetic systems are derived” (p.75).

This claim would be persuasive if it were accurate. But it isn’t. As far as we know, the Phoenicians – renowned traders – invented the first alphabetic representation of language. It was a consonantal alphabet that reflected the structure of Semitic languages and it spread through the Middle East. The Greeks adapted it, introducing symbols for vowels. This wasn’t a stroke of genius on their part – Semitic writing systems also used symbols for vowels where required for disambiguation – but a necessary addition because Greek is an Indo-European language with a syllabic structure. The script used by the Mycenaean civilisation that preceded the Greeks was a syllabic one.

“a distinctive kind of literate thinking”

Egan argues that this alphabet enabled the Greeks to develop “extended discursive writing” that “is not an external copy of a kind of thinking that goes on in the head; it represents a distinctive kind of literate thinking” (p.76). I agree that extended discursive writing changes thinking, but I’m not convinced that it’s distinctive nor that it results from literacy.

There’s been some discussion amongst teachers recently about the claim that committing facts to long-term memory mitigates the limitations of working memory. Thorough memorisation of information certainly helps – we can recall it quickly and easily when we need it – but we can still only juggle half-a-dozen items at a time in working memory. The pre-literate and semi-literate civilisations that preceded the Greeks relied on long-term memory for the storage and transmission of information because they didn’t have an alternative. But long-term memory has its own limitations in the form of errors, biases and decay. Even people who had memorisation down to a fine art were obliged to develop writing in order to have an accurate record of things that long-term memory isn’t good at handling, such as what’s in sealed sacks and jars and how old it is. Being able to represent spoken language in writing takes things a step further. Written language not only circumvents the weaknesses of long-term memory, it helps with the limitations of working memory too. Extended discursive writing can encompass thousands of facts, ideas and arguments that a speaker and a listener would find it impossible to keep track of in conversation. So extended discursive writing doesn’t represent “a distinctive kind of literate thinking” so much as significantly extending pre-literate thinking.

the Greek miracle

It’s true that the sudden arrival in Greece of “democracy, logic, philosophy, history, drama [and] reflective introspection… were explainable in large part as an implication of the development and spread of alphabetic literacy” (p.76). But although alphabetic literacy might be a necessary condition for the “Greek miracle”, it isn’t a sufficient one.

Like all the civilisations that had preceded it, the economy of the Greek city states was predominantly agricultural, although it also supported thriving industries in mining, metalwork, leatherwork and pottery. Over time agricultural communities had figured out more efficient ways of producing, storing and trading food. Communities learn from each other, so sooner or later, one of them would produce enough surplus food to free up some of its members to focus on thinking and problem-solving, and would have the means to make a permanent record of the thoughts and solutions that emerged. The Greeks used agricultural methods employed across the Middle East, adapted the Phoenician alphabet and slavery fuelled the Greek economy as it had previous civilisations. The literate Greeks were standing on the shoulders of pre-literate Middle Eastern giants.

The ability to make a permanent record of thoughts and solutions gave the next generation of thinkers and problem-solvers a head start and created the virtuous cycle of understanding that’s continued almost unabated to the present day. I say almost unabated, because there have been periods during which it’s been impossible for communities to support thinkers and problem-solvers; earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, drought, flood, disease, war and invasion have all had a devastating and long-term impact on food production and on the infrastructure that relies on it.

language, knowledge and understanding

Egan’s types of understanding – Somatic, Mythic, Romantic, Philosophic and Ironic – have descriptive validity; they do reflect the way understanding has developed historically, and the way it develops in children. But from a causal perspective, although those phases correlate with literacy they also correlate with the complexity of knowledge. As complexity of knowledge increases, so understanding shifts from binary to scalar to systematic to the exceptions to systems; binary classifications, for example, are characteristic of the way people, however literate they are, tend to categorise knowledge in a domain that’s new to them (e.g. Lewandowski et al, 2005).

Egan doesn’t just see literacy as an important factor in the development of understanding, he frames understanding in terms of literacy. What this means is that in Egan’s framework, knowledge (notably pre-verbal and non-verbal knowledge) has to get in line behind literacy when it comes to the development of understanding. It also means that Egan overlooks the key role of agriculture and trade in the development of writing systems and of the cultures that invented them. And that apprenticeship, for millennia widely used as a means of passing on knowledge, is considered only in relation to ‘aboriginal’ cultures (p.49). And that Somatic understanding is relegated to a few pages at the end of the chapter on the Ironic.

non-verbal knowledge

These are significant oversights. Non-verbal knowledge is a sine qua non for designers, artisans, architects, builders, farmers, engineers, mariners, surgeons, physiotherapists, artists, chefs, parfumiers, musicians – the list goes on and on. It’s true that much of the knowledge associated with these occupations is transmitted verbally, but much of it can’t be transmitted through language, but acquired only by looking, listening or doing. Jenny Uglow in The Lunar Men attributes the speed at which the industrial revolution took place not to literacy, but to the development of a way to reproduce technical drawings accurately.

Egan appears sceptical about practical people and practical things because when

those who see themselves as practical people engaging in practical things [who] tend not to place any value on acquiring the abstract languages framed to deal with an order than underlies surface diversity” are “powerful in government, education departments and legislatures, pressures mount for an increasingly down-to-earth, real-world curriculum. Abstractions and theories are seen as idle, ivory-tower indulgences removed from the gritty reality of sensible life.” (p.228)

We’re all familiar with the type of people Egan refers to, and I’d agree that the purpose of education isn’t simply to produce a workforce for industry. But there are other practical people engaging in practical things who are noticeable by their absence from this book; farmers, craftspeople, traders and engineers who are very interested in abstractions, theories and the order that underlies surface diversity. The importance of knowledge that’s difficult to verbalise has significant implications for the curriculum and for the traditional academic/vocational divide. Although there is clearly a difference between ‘abstractions and theories’ and their application, theory and application are interdependent; neither is more important than the other, something that policy-makers often find difficult to grasp.

Egan acknowledges that there’s a problem with emphasising the importance of non-verbal knowledge in circles that assume that language underpins understanding. As he points out “Much modernist and postmodernist theory is built on the assumption that human understanding is essentially languaged understanding” (p.166). Egan’s framework elbows aside language to make room for non-verbal knowledge, but it’s a vague, incoherent “ineffable” sort of non-verbal knowledge that’s best expressed linguistically through irony (p.170). It doesn’t appear to include the very coherent, concrete kind of non-verbal knowledge that enables us to grow food, build bridges or carry out heart-transplants.

the internal coherence of what’s out there

Clearly, bodies of knowledge transmitted from person to person via language will be shaped by language and by the thought-processes that produce it, so the knowledge transmitted won’t be 100% complete, objective or error-free. But a vast amount of knowledge refers to what’s out there, and what’s out there has an existence independent of our thought-processes and language. What’s out there also has an internally coherent structure that becomes clearer the more we learn about it, so over time our collective bodies of knowledge more accurately reflect what’s out there and become more internally coherent despite their incompleteness, subjectivity and errors.

The implication is that in education, the internal coherence of knowledge itself should play at least some part in shaping the curriculum. But because the driving force behind Egan’s framework is literacy rather than knowledge, the internal coherence of knowledge can’t get a word in edgeways. During the Romantic phase of children’s thinking, for example, Egan recommends introducing topics randomly to induce ‘wonder and awe’ (p.218), rather than introducing them systematically to help children make sense of the world. To me this doesn’t look very different from the “gradual extension from what is already familiar” (p.86) approach of which Egan is pretty critical. I thought the chapter on Philosophic understanding might have something to say about this but it’s about how people think about knowledge rather than the internal coherence of knowledge itself – not quite the same thing.

the cherries on the straw hat of society

The sociologist Jacques Ellul once described hippies as the cherries on the straw hat of society* meaning that they were in a position to be critical of society only because of the nature of the society of which they were critical. I think this also serves as an analogy for Egan’s educational framework. He’s free to construct an educational theory framed solely in terms of literacy only because of the non-literate knowledge of practical people like farmers, craftspeople, traders and engineers. That brings me back to my original agricultural analogy; wonder and awe, like apple blossom and the aroma of hops, might make might make our experience of education and of agriculture transcendent, but if it wasn’t for coherent bodies of non-verbal knowledge and potatoes, swedes and Brussels sprouts, we wouldn’t be in a position to appreciate transcendence at all.

References

Lewandowski G, Gutschow A, McCartney R, Sanders K, Shinners-Kennedy D (2005). What novice programmers don’t know. Proceedings of the first international workshop on computing education research, 1-12. ACM New York, NY.

Uglow, J (2003). The Lunar Men: The Friends who made the Future. Faber & Faber.

Note
*I can’t remember which of Ellul’s books this reference is from and can’t find it quoted anywhere. If anyone knows, I’d be grateful for the source.

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Kieran Egan’s “The educated mind” 1

I grew up in a small hamlet on the edge of the English Fens. The clay soil it was built on retains nutrients and moisture, so, well-drained, it provides an ideal medium for arable farming. Arable crops aren’t very romantic. The backdrop to my childhood wasn’t acres of lacy apple blossom in spring or aromatic hops in summer, although there were a few fields of waving golden wheat. I grew up amongst potatoes, swedes and Brussels sprouts. Not romantic at all, but the produce of East Anglia has long contributed to the UK population getting through the winter.

A few weeks ago on Twitter Tim Taylor (@imagineinquiry) asked me what I thought about Kieran Egan’s book The Educated Mind: How Cognitive Tools Shape our Understanding. This book is widely cited by teachers, so I read it. It reminded me of the sticky clay and root vegetables of my childhood – because sticky clay, root vegetables and other mundane essentials are noticeable by their absence from Egan’s educational and cultural framework. For Egan, minds aren’t grounded in the earth, but in language. To me the educational model he proposes is the equivalent of clouds of apple blossom and heady hops; breathtakingly beautiful and dizzying, but only if you’ve managed to get through the winter living on swedes and potatoes. My agricultural allusion isn’t just a simile.

recapitulation

Egan begins by claiming there’s a crisis in mass education systems in the West due to their being shaped by three fundamentally incompatible ideas; socialisation, Plato’s concept of reason and knowledge, and Rousseau’s focus on the fulfilment of individual potential. To resolve this inherent conflict, Egan proposes an alternative educational framework based on the concept of recapitulation. Recapitulation was a popular idea in the 19th century, fuelled by the theory of evolution and the discovery that during gestation human embryos go through phases that look remarkably like transformations from simple life forms to more complex ones. As Ernst Haeckel put it ‘ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny’.

The theory of recapitulation has been largely abandoned by biologists, but is still influential in other domains. Egan applies it to the intellectual tools – the sign systems that children first encounter in others and then internalise – that Vygotsky claimed shape our understanding of the world. Egan maps the historical ‘culturally accumulated complexity in language’ onto the ways that children’s understanding changes as they get older and proposes that what children are taught and the way they are taught should be shaped by five distinct, though not always separate, phases of understanding:

Somatic; pre-linguistic understanding
Mythic; binary opposites – good/bad, strong/weak, right/wrong
Romantic; transcendent qualities – heroism, bravery, wickedness
Philosophic; the principles underlying patterns in information
Ironic; being able to challenge philosophic principles – seeing alternatives.

At first glance Egan’s arguments appear persuasive but I think they have several fundamental weaknesses, all originating in flawed implicit assumptions. First, the crisis in education.

crisis? what crisis?

I can see why a fundamentally incoherent education system might run into difficulties, but Egan observes:

“…today we are puzzled by the schools’ difficulty in providing even the most rudimentary education to students”… “the costs of…social alienation, psychological rootlessness and ignorance of the world and possibilities of human experience within it, are incalculable and heartbreaking.” (p.1)

Wait a minute. There’s no doubt that Western education systems fail to provide even the most rudimentary education for some students, but those form a tiny minority. And although some school pupils could be described as socially alienated, psychologically rootless or ignorant of the world and possibilities of human experience within it, that description wouldn’t apply to many others. So what exactly is the crisis Egan refers to? The only clue I could find was on page 2 where he describes ‘the educational ineffectiveness of our schools’ as a ‘modern social puzzle’ and defines ‘modern’ as beginning with the ‘late nineteenth century development of mass schooling’.

To claim an educational system is in crisis, you have to compare it to something. Critics often make comparisons with other nations, with the best schools (depending on how you define ‘best’) or with what they think the education system should be like. Egan appears to fall into the last category, but to overlook the fact that prior to mass schooling children did well if they manage to learn to read and write at all, and that girls and children with disabilities often didn’t get any education at all.

Critics often miss a crucial point. Mass education systems, unlike specific schools, cater for entire populations, with all their genetic variation, socio-economic fluctuations, dysfunctional families, unexpected illnesses and disruptive life events. In a recent radio interview, Tony Little headmaster of Eton College was asked if he thought the very successful Eton model could be rolled out elsewhere. He pointed out, dryly, that Eton is a highly selective school, which might just be a factor in its academic success. One obvious reason for the perceived success of schools outside state systems is that those schools are not obliged to teach whichever children happen to live nearby. Even the best education system won’t be problem-free because life is complex and problems are inextricably woven into the fabric of life itself. I’m not suggesting that we tolerate bad schools or have low aspirations. What I am suggesting is that our expectations for mass education systems need to be realistic, not based on idealised speculation.

incompatible ideas

Speculation also comes into play with regard to the incompatibility of the three ideas Egan claims shape mass education in the West. They have certainly shaped education historically and you could see them as in tension. But the ideas are incompatible only if you believe that one idea should predominate or that the aims inherent in each idea can be perfectly met. There’s no reason why schools shouldn’t inculcate social values, teach reason and knowledge and develop individual potential. Indeed, it would be difficult for any school that taught reasoning and knowledge to avoid socialisation because of the nature of schools, and in developing reasoning and knowledge children would move towards realising their potential anyway.

If, as Egan argues, Western mass education systems have been ineffective since they started, his complaint appears to be rooted in assumptions about what the system should be like rather than in evidence about its actual potential. And as long as different constituencies have different opinions about the aims of the education system, someone somewhere will be calling ‘Crisis!’. That doesn’t mean there is one. But Egan believes there is, hence his new framework. The framework is based on the development of written language and its impact on thinking and understanding. For Egan, written language marked a crucial turning point in human history.

why write?

There’s no doubt that written language is an important factor in knowledge and understanding. Spoken language enables us to communicate ideas about things that aren’t right here right now. Written language enables us to communicate with people who aren’t right here right now. The increasing sophistication of written language as it developed from pictograms to syllabaries to alphabets enabled increasingly sophisticated ideas to be communicated. But the widely held belief that language is the determining factor when it comes to knowledge and understanding is open to question.

The earliest known examples of writing were not representations of language as such but records of agricultural products; noting whether it was wheat or barley in the sacks, wine or oil in the jars, when the produce was harvested and how many sacks and jars were stored where. Early writing consisted of pictograms (images of what the symbols represent) and ideograms (symbols for ideas). It was centuries before these were to develop into the alphabetic representations of language we’re familiar with today. To understand why it took so long, we need to put ourselves in the shoes (or sandals) of the early adopters of agriculture.

food is wealth

Farming provides a more reliable food supply than hunting and gathering. Farming allows food that’s surplus to requirements to be stored in case the next harvest is a bad one, or to be traded. Surplus food enables a community to support people who aren’t directly involved in food production; rulers, administrators, artisans, traders, scribes, teachers, a militia to defend its territory. The militia has other uses too. Conquering and enslaving neighbouring peoples has for millennia been a popular way of increasing food production in order to support a complex infrastructure.

But for surplus food to be turned into wealth, storage and trade are required. Storage and trade require written records and writing is labour-intensive. While scribes are being trained and are maintaining records they can’t do much farming; writing is costly. So communities that can’t predict when a series of bad harvests will next result in them living hand-to-mouth, will focus on writing about things that are difficult to remember – what’s in a sealed container, when it was harvested etc. They won’t need to keep records of how to grow food, look after animals, histories, myths, poems or general knowledge if that information can be transmitted reliably from person to person orally. It’s only when oral transmission stops being reliable that written language as distinct from record-keeping, starts to look like a good idea. And the more you trade, the more oral transmission gets to be a problem. Travellers might need detailed written descriptions of people, places and things. Builders and engineers using imported designs or materials might need precise instructions.

Spoken language wasn’t the only driving force behind the development of written language – economic and technical factors played a significant role. I don’t think Egan gives these factors sufficient weight in his account of the development of human understanding nor in his model for education, as I explain in the next post.

seven myths about education – what’s missing?

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

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

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

concepts and evidence

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

concepts but no evidence

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

evidence but no concepts

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

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

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

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

burden of proof

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

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

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

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

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

references

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

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.

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.

References

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.

seven myths about education: the myths

Well, I’ve finally been and gone and read Daisy Christodoulou’s book Seven Myths about Education. Overall, her argument goes as follows;

• the English education system is dominated by a certain set of ideas
• the ideas can be epitomised as seven ‘myths’
• cognitive science demonstrates that the myths are wrong.

Broadly speaking, a challenge to the dominant orthodoxy of the education system is certainly overdue and cognitive science is a good place to start. But when it comes down to specifics I felt that Daisy’s analysis of the ideas, her understanding of the grounds for challenging them, and the conclusions she draws don’t stand up to scrutiny. The discrepancy between the surface plausibility of the arguments and their underlying structure would explain why this book been both lauded and criticised. Whether you laud it or criticise it will depend on the level at which you read it.

the English education system is dominated by a certain set of ideas

The evidence from theory and practice the author sets out supports her thesis that some ideas predominate in educational theory and that teachers are encouraged, if not pressurised, into implementing those ideas. But that’s not all there is to it; there are things missing from the analysis. The English education system is complex, so the quality of education students get is dependent on a range of factors. These include not only the ideas that shape the content of teacher training, the content of the curriculum and the criteria used in Ofsted inspections, but the structure of the system itself, the framework of accountability and expectations about what the system should achieve. No author could tackle everything in one book, of course, but the ideas that shape teacher training and practice need to be assessed in the context of the system as a whole, so a brief explanation of Daisy’s view of the other factors would have been helpful.

the ideas can be epitomised as seven ‘myths’

The myths are;

1. facts prevent understanding
2. teacher-led instruction is passive
3. the 21st century fundamentally changes everything
4. you can always just look it up
5. we should teach transferable skills
6. projects and activities are the best way to learn
7. teaching knowledge is just indoctrination

The structure of the book is clear; one chapter is devoted to each myth and each of the myth chapters is divided into three sections – ‘theoretical evidence’, ‘modern practice’ and ‘why is it a myth’? Unfortunately the same degree of clarity doesn’t apply to the analysis of the ideas. Three tendencies muddy the water;

• a failure to make a clear distinction between theory, opinion and practice
• treating ideas that bear a passing resemblance to a myth as equivalent to the myth itself
• assuming that subscribing to an idea that resembles one myth implies subscribing to other myths.

a distinction between theory, opinion and practice

For some myths (3, 4, 5 and 6) the only difference between the theoretical evidence and the modern practice described is that the two sections contain different quotations – the sources are the same. This might be because the myths in question don’t have a theoretical basis; we’re not told. But given the author’s claim that she’s interested in tracing ideas (p.6) her failure to identify the roots of some of the myths is disappointing. An exploration of their origins might have shed some light on why they’ve been adopted.

ideas that bear a passing resemblance to a myth equated with the myth itself

For most of the myths, several examples of theory and practice are about ideas related to the myth, not the myth itself. For example, questioning the reliability or validity of facts is equated to ‘facts prevent understanding’; calling for holistic and coherent curriculum content to ‘projects and activities are the best way to learn’; and advocating a degree of autonomy in learning to ‘teaching knowledge is just indoctrination’. This conflation would account for the ‘illogical’ criticism Daisy complains about on her blog – people claiming that the myths don’t exist whilst simultaneously agreeing that she has found examples of them presented as best practice. If several related but different ideas are being conflated and treated as one, it’s not surprising that confusion has followed.

subscribing to an idea that resembles one myth implies subscribing to other myths

In several chapters the theoretical evidence refers to myths and related ideas other than the one the chapter purports to be about. The theoretical evidence for myth 2, ‘teacher-led instruction is passive’, refers to children’s difficulties with constant questions and with learning to read, interdisciplinary learning and the power relationship between pupil and teacher, rather than passivity. Evidence for myth 7, ‘teaching knowledge is just indoctrination’, includes questioning the objectivity of facts and advocating interdisciplinary activities and projects, rather than teachers indoctrinating children.

You could argue that people who subscribe to one myth (or ideas related to it) often do subscribe to other myths (or ideas related to them). But the author’s case rests on evidence of the prevalence of seven quite specific ideas. She also claims to trace those ideas from theory to practice (p.6). Her case would have been stronger if she’d been able to do that with more precision.

Daisy locates the origin of all the myths in postmodernism. She says;

Postmodernism is sceptical about the value of truth and knowledge, and many of these myths have at their heart a deep scepticism about the value of knowledge. It is for this reason that I begin with myth 1 (facts prevent understanding) and 2 (teacher-led instruction is passive). These could be said to be the foundation myths of all the others discussed in this book.” (p.8)

To illustrate how ideas are handled in this book, it’s worth taking a closer look at one of the foundational myths – myth 1 ‘facts prevent understanding’.

facts prevent understanding

Daisy attempts to demonstrate the theoretical basis of the myth ‘facts prevent understanding’ by quoting from Rousseau, Dewey, Freire and Dickens. But the quotations are actually about ideas other than ‘facts prevent understanding’. Rousseau expected children to learn facts via nature rather than formal schooling, Dewey objected to pedagogical methods that prevented children learning, Freire explicitly objects to the ‘banking’ approach in education because it conceals facts from children (Freire p.83) and Dickens’ concern was that facts alone were being taught.

Despite failing to demonstrate that the four authors actually thought that facts prevent understanding, Daisy refers to a ‘common trope’ between them. “They all set up polar opposites between facts, which are generally seen as bad, and something else, which is generally seen as good” (p.13). But they don’t. According to the evidence cited, what the writers objected to was the way facts were presented in schools. The alternatives they proposed might not be any better, but it doesn’t follow that any of them thought that facts, per se, were bad.

The origins of the myth, according to the author, lie with Rousseau. His emphasis was actually on what children could learn from interactions with the harsh reality of nature as distinct from than human interventions that were frequently ineffectual. Although Rousseau’s influence is clearly traceable through to modern educational practice, his underlying idea that understanding is as important as factual knowledge is also exemplified in John Locke (who influenced Rousseau), in the Socratic method and in the books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, taking it back to several centuries BC. In other words, a distinction between facts and understanding was around for quite a while before Rousseau appeared on the scene.

Daisy acknowledges “sometimes it is argued that these theorists were not hostile to facts per se, merely to certain prescriptive and artificial methods of learning such facts” (p.13) and says she considers this argument in full in the following chapter. What she actually does in that chapter is to quote Rousseau on endless questions from teachers, children’s curiosity and rote learning, Dewey on the correlation of school subjects, and Freire on the co-construction of learning, none of which says anything about hostility to facts.

She concludes that the national curriculum ‘opposes’ subject content and subject concepts just as Rousseau, Dewey, Freire and Dickens allegedly ‘opposed’ facts with “meaning, understanding, reasoning, significance…imagination or creativity” (p.13). Her evidence from the national curriculum certainly demonstrates a move towards subject concepts at the expense of subject content, but that’s a far cry from propagating the idea that ‘facts prevent understanding’. Yet by the end of the chapter on myth 1, theorists and government agencies are described as ‘sceptical about the value of facts’. By the end of the chapter on myth 2, theorists have become ‘hostile’ to facts. What Daisy does, in effect, is to lump together all ideas that include any reservations whatsoever about factual information, who presents it or how it is presented, and assume that what they all boil down to is a belief that ‘facts prevent understanding’. They don’t, of course.

facts

Facts are a key issue for Daisy. She cites Berger and Luckman’s The Social Construction of Reality as epitomising the thinking of some educational theorists for whom ‘the very concept of knowledge is problematic’ (p.111), and comments;

“…Berger and Luckman looked at the way that many of the facts we perceived to be true were in fact social constructions. They did not objectively exist out there somewhere. They were brought into being because we all believed in them, and very often they were buttressed by institutional power” (p.109). (Daisy’s emphasis).

What she doesn’t appear to have thought through is why anyone could see truth, facts and knowledge as problematic. Yet these concepts have had philosophers, historians, lawyers and scientists scratching their heads for centuries. This isn’t because of hostility to facts – all these disciplines actively seek out facts – but because it’s very difficult for human beings to determine what is true and therefore factual. Each of these disciplines is well aware that facts involve degrees of uncertainty and has had to devise ways of evaluating the reliability and validity of evidence behind the facts. The root of the problem isn’t that some people think that facts do not ‘objectively exist out there somewhere’ but that our awareness of what is objectively ‘out there somewhere’ is at the mercy of our perception, which is notoriously unreliable. Ironically cognitive science has recently begun to identify the mechanisms behind the vagaries of human perception that have been so perplexing for so long.

Much of the information transmitted in schools is backed by pretty solid evidence, so for all intents and purposes we can refer to it as factual; e.g. how photosynthesis works, what happens during volcanic eruptions, where and when the battle of Hastings took place, the rules of algebra. Other information is less certain; how subatomic particles behave, evolution, climate change, the causes of WW1. In the latter examples, trying to determine whether the information is factual or not is unhelpful. It’s more informative to frame it in terms of the reliability and validity of the evidence and what conclusions can be drawn about it. I think Daisy is right that currently these skills might be being introduced prematurely, before children have a sufficient grasp of the data and the structure of the relevant knowledge domain, but sooner or later students need to be introduced to uncertainty in knowledge and how to tackle it. The problematic nature of facts doesn’t mean that all facts are equally problematic. Nor does it mean that they are all equally unproblematic. The factualness of information varies, and students need to know how and why it varies.

The evidence that Daisy presents suggests that social constructivism has had a disproportionate influence on educational theory. That’s not surprising given the importance of social interaction and verbal communication in education; education lends itself to a social constructivist paradigm. But this disproportionate influence has resulted in findings from other relevant knowledge domains relevant to education being overlooked. These include fields relating to child development such as genetics, molecular biology, linguistics and developmental and cognitive psychology, and those relating to structural issues such as organisational psychology and the history of education.

I think Daisy is right to highlight the dominance of certain ideas, but she has oversimplified a complex situation. She’s taken groups of ideas with common themes – such as facts, teacher authority, an integrated curriculum – and assumed that one, often extreme, related idea can exemplify all the ideas in a group. Another oversimplification crops up in relation to cognitive science, the subject of my next post.

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 and you can read it on the school website here.

The relatively short statement looks relatively long to me (almost 800 words). 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.