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.